Retiring administrator looks back at public service career

Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio's last day on the job is June 30

Daryl Delabbio
Retiring Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio. (June 19, 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Ask Daryl Delabbio about his accomplishments as Kent County administrator, and he points across the street from the county administration building to the $210 million DeVos Place Convention Center.

Delabbio was part of a coalition of government and civic leaders who overcame obstacles that would have crippled the project in another community.

“It’s not something you see around the state,” Delabbio said.

He said that kind of cooperation is ingrained in the culture of West Michigan.

“I’m not saying its effortless,” he said. “It takes a lot of work. But it’s just something that’s within the culture of this community and, I guess, it’s an expectation.”

Delabbio, who has had his hand creating and implementing public policy here in West Michigan for the better part of 40 years, is retiring from his post as county administrator on June 30.

He came to West Michigan in the mid-1980s from metro Detroit, taking the reigns as Rockford City manager. Eleven years later, he moved to the third floor at the county administration building, first as assistant county administrator and in 1998 as county administrator.

“Every day I learn something about Kent County that I didn’t know before,” Delabbio said.

His duties include overseeing the county’s budget. Set at $133 million this year, the budget helps fund vital services like the Health Department, Human Services, circuit courts and the sheriff’s department.

While DeVos Place was one of his biggest accomplishments, his success goes beyond what many would consider the big-ticket items.

Fifteen year ago, Kent County recognized issues many organizations are only now starting to deal with. The county formed the Cultural Insight Council, a diverse group of county employees helping educate leaders on issues related to equity and diversity based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation and physical abilities.

“To highlight what we do and what we should be doing as an organization to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion,” Delabbio explained.

The council issues an annual report measuring the success of programs on hiring and other initiatives. The goal is not only to make the county a more diverse workplace, but also to make sure customers — better known as taxpayers — are treated equally.

“We’re taking on these tough subjects that we want our employees to understand that this is a diverse community and we are here to serve that diverse community,” Delabbio said.

The county has started the process for a nationwide search for a new administrator. Just how challenging the search will be remains to be seen.

Delabbio has concerns about the next generation of appointed government leaders, be it pay — an administrator can make a lot more money in the private sector — or the politics.

While Delabbio has been successful weathering the political climate created by his elected bosses on the county commission, it’s not like that everywhere.

It is difficult attracting people to the public administration field these days.

“That’s also something that our profession is struggling with right now,” Delabbio said.

He and other administrative types have gone to college, not to learn, but to teach the virtues of their business.

“We talk about the service orientation, that it’s something bigger than us,” Delabbio said. “In some instances, you can see the physical manifestation, like the convention center. And in other instances, it may take years to see an issue resolved. But when it’s resolved, it’s great.”