Behind the scenes as a valued counselor

April 20, 2009
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During bleak economic times, when budgets can become sticky issues and uncertainty can gum up the decision process, Kent County Commission Vice Chairwoman Sandra Parrish said Jim Day has been the glue that has held the board together.

Day is the only executive assistant the county board has ever had, and likely the key manager most people have never heard of. That's OK with the county, though, because officials there are keenly aware of his value.

"Jim is effective at linking information between the staff to the board of commissioners and vice-versa. He also serves as a perfect liaison between the commissioners and their various constituencies," said Daryl Delabbio, county administration and controller.

"He has a demeanor that is perfectly suited to working with the various personalities on the board, and Jim takes the 'servant' element of 'public servant' very seriously," he said.

"I know he has been a valued counselor to the current board chair and past board chairs, and he has been a valued counselor to me, as well."

Day has counseled five county chairmen during his tenure, starting with Richard Vander Molen in 1996, followed by Patrick Malone, Steven Heacock, David Morren and Roger Morgan, who is now in his third year at the board's helm.

"It has been amazing that the right person serving as the board chair has always been the right person at the right time," said Day. "There couldn't be a better person to be chair at this point than Roger Morgan."

At the time that Day applied for the brand-new position — established by the commissioners in December 1995 — he also had put in an application for a buyer's position with a private firm. He thought he had a good shot at landing that job because he had the right background, having worked in the county's purchasing department since 1981. The interviews had gone well, until he was asked a certain question. He knew if he answered it truthfully, the job wouldn't be his. But he did just that, fully knowing the consequence.

"The question was: 'If it was the Christmas holiday and if you were needed to go overseas to make a buy, would you do that?' And I said, 'No, I would stay with my family.' I was later told that I answered that question the wrong way, and I did not get that job," he said.

"Two weeks later, though, I interviewed for the position I have now, and I was fortunate to get it."

The 53-year-old Day, a Grand Rapids native, recently celebrated an anniversary of sorts: his 13th as executive assistant, having started on April Fool's Day, 1996. When asked about what accounts for his longevity at the post, Day gave all the credit to the countless number of commissioners he has worked with and to two administrators — Delabbio and Melinda Carlton — for allowing him to pretty much define and design the position.

Part of the model he created relegates him to the background because that is where he wants to be.

"I try to be the eyes and ears of the board of commissioners, for County Administrator Daryl Delabbio, for the department directors and, most importantly, for the citizens of the county. I look out for pitfalls here and there and get them ready for their meetings," he said.

Organization: Kent County
Title: Executive Assistant to the Kent County Board of Commissioners
Age: 53
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Shelbyville
Family: Wife, Joanne; children Steve, Leanne and Kellan
Business/Community Organizations: Convention and Arena Authority Operations Committee, Grand Valley Metro Council Legislative Committee, Michigan Association of Counties Administrative Officers, and Gun Lake Community Church.
Biggest Career Break: The establishment of the new position of executive assistant in 1995 by Kent County commissioners.

"I like that it's behind the scenes."

Day has a staff of two — Pam VanKeuren and Sandra Winchester — that help him get the board's and committees' agendas and resolutions together. He also represents the county on the Convention and Arena Authority Operations Committee and on the Grand Valley Metro Council Legislative Committee, two highly visible decision-making bodies that put him at the table with some of the area's most prominent individuals.

Day said there wasn't a thing he would change about his position. But he noted that his position is sometimes tweaked a bit after an election as new commissioners come on board. He said it's often difficult to watch incumbents leave, whether through the ballot or retirement, because he has become personally close with many of them over the last 13 years.

"When there is a changeover like there was this past year when seven people essentially walked out of my life — and these are people that I've grown to love — it's hard not seeing them and not having that day-to-day contact. But this new group, as always, are good people to work with and for, and I enjoy them," he said.

While in the county's purchasing department, Day said he bought everything from guns and ammunition to clothing and janitorial supplies. He also took care of the county's fleet of cars and closed on service contracts. He became a buyer for a Kalamazoo-area restaurant as a student at Western Michigan University, where he majored in business administration and minored in psychology.

"So I got a taste of dealing with vendors, and I enjoyed that. I applied for a buyer's position at the county and was fortunate to get it," he said.

Even though Day is officially a Bronco, his heart bleeds maize and blue when it comes to sports. He said his father, Jack Day, instilled a love for the University of Michigan through the stories he told him when he was on the U-M campus.

"The rest, as they say, is history. I am a big Blue sports fan. I don't go as often as I wish I could. But I try to get to at least one basketball game and at least one football game every season."

Day met his wife, Joanne, at Western when he was a senior and she was a freshman studying medical technology. They dated for five years before getting married.

"God has blessed me in that I've been able to marry my best friend," he said.

Today, Joanne is a point-of-care coordinator at Bronson Methodist Hospital. Her key responsibility is to make sure that all lab tests are done according to protocol. They live in Shelbyville, which is the halfway point for his work commute to Grand Rapids and her trek to Kalamazoo.

The Days have three children: Steve, Leanne and Kellan. Sixteen-year-old Kellan attends Wayland Union High School. Steve, 23, is at the Michigan College of Optometry. Leanne, 20, is enrolled at Ferris State University and is heading into the nursing school to major in health care systems administration.

Day said what he does most when not working is spend time with Joanne and the kids, which is tougher to do now with two of the children away at college. He also likes to camp, play golf and hit the hardwood court.

"I try to take (County Assistant Administrator) Wayman Britt on once in a while," he said of the former U-M and Detroit Pistons power forward.

Day attended Grand Rapids Christian High School back when it was known as Central Christian and was located at 415 Franklin St. SE. That is a noteworthy address to him and anyone affiliated with the county because it is where the Kent County Department of Human Services has been for decades and will be for roughly two more months until the new Human Services Complex opens in June.

Day has taken his personal philosophy, which is deeply rooted in his religious belief, and firmly implanted that thought process in what he does at the county. He described that philosophy as a "servanthood leadership mentality." He said he strives to keep it at the forefront of everything he does and with every person he encounters.

"I try to walk my life to be as Christ-like as possible, and I find myself falling short of that every day. But it's a goal. I have great people that I work with. And as with any job, some days are easier than others, but I try to have that servanthood mentality — to try to have my eyes and heart be aware of people that are in need," he said.

As for his future personally, he said he and Joanne will likely become empty nesters in a few years, and he has mixed feelings about that happening. He looks forward to being alone with Joanne, but knows he will deeply miss seeing Kellan every day once she goes off to college.

"I'm looking forward to it and I'm dreading it at the same time, if that makes sense. Our kids are the best kids that we could have ever hoped or prayed for, and having them continue their learning and growing as young Christian adults is a joy. But at the same time, there will be some things that Joanne and I will be able to do," he said.

On the professional front, Day sees some stormy days ahead for the commission. The board has been wrestling with finances on multiple fronts for years now, but the past may very well be seen as the good ole days in the coming months. The county's general fund, which pays for most of the services Kent provides, is looking at a $5 million shortfall this fiscal year and at a $15 million deficit for the next one.

"The board of commissioners is on the verge of facing difficult decisions that they've never had to face before. All of the department heads have done a great job in recent years of making the necessary cuts where they can. But now they will be facing the toughest cuts of all," he said.

"The board has to make those decisions. It will be tough, but I believe they will be up to the challenge.

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