Alger Tapped As Next County Administrator
By Beth Milligan | June 9, 2018
Grand Traverse County commissioners Friday voted to hire County Undersheriff and Interim Administrator Nate Alger to be the county’s next administrator – a split-vote decision that followed multiple interviews and extensive debate among commissioners about two finalists for the position.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to offer the county’s top leadership position to Alger. The 23-year veteran of the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office has served as interim administrator – along with Deputy Civil Counsel Chris Forsyth and Finance Director Dean Bott – since the departure of former County Administrator Vicki Uppal in January. Alger was one of two finalists for the position from a field that started with 92 applicants; the other finalist was former Bay County Executive Thomas Hickner.
Alger and Hickner fielded questions from the public at a Thursday night open house before meeting with commissioners for a final round of interviews Friday morning. Immediately following the interviews, an extensive debate ensued among commissioners. Commissioners were divided in their support for the finalists, with three board members – Commissioners Cheryl Gore Follette, Bob Johnson, and Tom Mair – expressing concerns that Alger did not yet have the necessary experience or qualifications to be administrator, particularly compared to Hickner’s nearly four decades of experience in the public sector. In addition to serving in the Michigan Lesiglator, Hickner was the six-term elected chief executive officer of Bay County from 1993 to 2016, where he managed 550+ employees and negotiated over 90 bargaining agreements with 12 unions.
While Alger does not have county administrative experience outside of his time as interim administrator, he did meet other leadership and education criteria desired by the board. He has served as undersheriff in the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office since 2002 and first started out in the department as a road deputy in 1995. He also serves as an elected councilman in the Village of Kinglsey and is the head varsity softball coach at Traverse City Central High School. He has a Bachelor's degree in political science with an emphasis on public administration from Central Michigan University.
The difference in administrative backgrounds between the two candidates was a sticking point for several commissioners. Gore Follette expressed frustration that she believed those commissioners supportive of Alger – including Chair Carol Crawford, Dan Lathrop, Sonny Wheelock, and Ron Clous – were making an “emotional” decision in hiring Alger. “He’s very highly regarded, but I can’t support his becoming our next administrator at this point in time…it comes down to emotion and it doesn’t feel like the right way to make a decision,” she said. “Because everybody likes Nate and he’s a great guy and he’s lived here a long time. There are probably six or eight other (county) employees who meet the same criteria…and I’m not sure that that qualifies you to step into leading one of the largest organizations in the county, with one of the largest budgets.”
Johnson agreed, saying: “Nate’s done a great job (as interim administrator), but I don’t think he’s ready yet.” Gore Follette added she believed Alger would be the “perfect person” to act as a deputy administrator to Hickner’s county administrator, and that the undersheriff might be ready to take over the head post further down the road.
But other commissioners argued strongly for Alger’s hiring, citing his extensive history in Grand Traverse County, relationships with county employees and area elected officials, and his leadership skills. “It’s my gut that he’s the best guy,” said Lathrop. “He has so many great qualities…I trust Nate and I think he has a lot of experience that qualifies him to be a good administrator.” Citing Alger’s “compassion for this community and his desire to make it better,” Wheelock said he thought the candidate was “our best opportunity to get longevity and stability that this organization needs.”
Crawford said that while Alger may have lacked the administrative experience of other candidates, “there is no substitute for the qualities of a leader.”
“I think that the county needs to grow, and I think that Nate will grow with us…there’s no way we can buy or teach the love for the community that he has,” Crawford said. “Qualities and qualifications are very different, and I just can’t give up some of the qualities that come with Nate for the qualifications that come with Mr. Hickner. Those qualifications can be learned.”
Alger told commissioners that among his first priorities on the job would be meeting with county department heads and conducting SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) assessments to create a list of county “goals and objectives” to present to commissioners for consideration, as well as improving communication between commissioners and employees. Alger said he hoped to bring a sense of humor to the job and to “hit the ground running.”
“I’ve got a pretty good handle on the current problems that we have, and I’m not going to have to have a lot of startup time to keep moving forward,” Alger said.
An ad hoc committee of commissioners will now negotiate a contract offer with Alger, with the salary and benefits package coming back to the full commission at their next meeting for approval. Because of his lack of prior administrative experience, Alger’s offer is expected to be on the lower end of the posted salary range for the position, which was listed at $120,000 to $145,000.