Vanderberg Is Renaissance Man

June 16, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Most just know him as Al, the deputy administrator and controller for Kent County who serves as point man on some of the county's more visible projects like expanding the zoo and building Millennium Park.

But besides being a point man, Alan G. Vanderberg is also a renaissance man in his own right. He is an accomplished musician and educator, husband and father, and a soon-to-be author. In fact, about the only thing he doesn't do regularly is sleep.

"Not often, with four kids and all that," he said.

Vanderberg was promoted in January to deputy administrator from the assistant post he has held since 1999, a move that made him second-in-command to Kent Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio. He came to the county from South Haven, where he was city manager — a job he won when he was only 28 years old and one that he held for nine years.

"Daryl hiring me here was a huge opportunity. But quite frankly, none of it would have happened if Eric Delong didn't hire me as an intern in the village of Spring Lake in 1984. He was the one that sold me on public service," he said.

Vanderberg had just finished his political science degree at Michigan back then and was looking for work. Delong called and invited the Grand Haven native to join him at Spring Lake. After working with Delong, who managed the village, Vanderberg earned a master's degree in public administration from Michigan State and then moved to South Haven where he became that city's longest-serving manager.

"There are five people who have become city managers in Michigan who have worked under Eric Delong as interns. I don't know of anyone else who has had that kind of impact," he said. "Curtis Holt in Wyoming and Michael Young in Rockford started as interns under Eric."

Vanderberg has spent much of his past seven years creating a civics curriculum for secondary schools in Michigan. The result of his work? This fall, 42 high schools across the state will begin teaching how local government works. He put together the courses, which meet the state's MEAP standards, with the Department of Education.

"There is an appalling lack of knowledge and understanding about how local government works. When you look back at texts from the '20s, '30s and '40s, they used to devote half a text to teaching how government works; nuts-and-bolts stuff like property appraisal, tax millage, zoning. We just don't teach those kinds of things any more," said Vanderberg, who chairs the Centennial Youth Committee of the Michigan Municipal League.

Vanderberg, who also teaches a political science course at GVSU, said over the next three years he will build similar curriculums for elementary and middle school students.

"We hope that we're raising good citizens, but we're not giving them the tools."

The zoo, the parks, equalization, community development, and facilities management all report to Vanderberg, who also serves as a liaison to other agencies like the sheriff's office and as an ombudsman to local governments in the county. He is also working with police, fire and EMS firms throughout the county to create the new 911 central dispatch system.

"We're moving very positively on that. We've had some success," he said.

Vanderberg likes most of what he does, but he said none was more rewarding than improving the processes to deliver services and making life a bit better for county residents. If there were one thing he could change, though, it would be for people to have a better understanding of all the things the county does.

"County government is the most invisible level of government in existence. We're trying to change that, but it's a big job," he said. "We're really anonymous and it's not like we're really trying to hide."

Vanderberg noted that counties don't have many of the more recognizable government functions, such as planning, zoning, sewer and water that grab attention from businesses. Instead, counties have the jails and community mental health services that serve certain populations, but are not the type of services that most people come in contact with on a regular basis.

"Some of the things we do have, like the airport and the zoo, have their own identity and people do not think of Kent County when they look at the airport and the zoo," he said.

When he isn't working, Vanderberg spends a lot of time with his family. Leslie has been his wife for 17 years and they have four children ages 3 to 12: three daughters and a son. He plays racquetball and the saxophone, and fishes. He is heavily into genealogy and family research. Because of that interest and his interest in fishing, later this year he hopes to have a book on the region's fishing industry published.

"My family had a commercial fishing business in Grand Haven and Muskegon for over 100 years, and I've broadened the book to include a history of commercial fishing in West Michigan," he said.

"I've had the book about 95 percent done for three or four years now, and I'm chasing down those final details that will take it from an average book to a really good book."

Now comes the really big question. Being both a Wolverine and a Spartan, which school does Vanderberg root for in the big games?

"Michigan. I think you're more loyal to where you did your undergrad," he answered. "I really like State a lot. I mean, I only wish them ill those times when they play Michigan in football and basketball."

In less than a month, on July 12 to be exact, Vanderberg will mark his fourth year with Kent County and it should be a memorable summer for him. He will wrap up the first phase of putting Millennium Park together and could be announcing a new site for the zoo. And later this year, he just may put the finishing touches on the dispatch system.

"My plate is definitely full and I have a lot of really neat things to work on right now. I don't know about the future. I tend to define job happiness with what I'm working on a lot of times and I don't really have a formula that says that I've got to be in Kent County for five years and then move on," said Vanderberg.

"I like to be somewhere where I can have an impact and if I didn't feel like I could have an impact, I'd probably go somewhere else. We have a great team of people here. It's a great organization to work for and I see us doing a lot of exciting things."

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