Leelanau News and Events

'Steep Learning Curve': Deb Allen Talks Week 1 As Leelanau County Administrator

By Craig Manning | Dec. 12, 2022

For the first time in a decade, Leelanau County has a new county administrator.

Last Monday, Deborah Allen officially stepped into the Leelanau County leadership role that outgoing administrator Chet Janik has held since 2012. Allen brings significant experience in project management, community engagement, and public service. Most recently, she worked in healthcare philanthropy, as executive director of development and community engagement at Grand Traverse Pavilions. She is also a former trustee for Elmwood Township and a one-time lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserves.

What Allen doesn’t want to bring to her new role is a set-in-stone agenda. Rather, Allen fancies herself as the person responsible for making sure everyone else in the county government – from staff members to elected officials – feels adequately equipped and empowered to drive Leelanau forward. The Leelanau Ticker sat down with Allen last Friday to learn more about that leadership philosophy, as well as about Allen's takeaways from a busy week one, her expectations for an even busier week two, and her plans and goals for steering the county in 2023 and beyond.

Ticker: I’d imagine it’s been a whirlwind of a week overall, but what are your top 2-3 takeaways from the first few days on the job?

Allen: First off, I’ll say I still couldn't be more honored to be able to work within our county and work with the commissioners. We have a wonderful staff here at the county, and just such talent and such commitment. So, from that perspective, I'm truly honored, and I'm looking forward to learning more as I go.

As for the job, there are a lot of significant issues that are in the works right now at the county, and it’s an interesting time to be coming in since it’s the last month of the year and there are imminent changes in leadership. We have four new commissioners joining the board [in January], so the gravity of that transition is something that I'm very well aware of. There’s going to be a steep learning curve for several of us as we move some of these issues forward.

In terms of takeaways, I think one of the biggest things right now is continuing to address the finance director situation. The county’s finance director resigned the Monday before I started, so that issue continues to be probably the top priority right now.

[Editor’s note: Jared Prince, the third person to hold the finance director role for Leelanau County since the job was created in October 2021, resigned at the beginning of this month and will leave the county effective December 27. Prince’s resignation is the latest bump in a controversial attempt by the county commission to reorganize the Leelanau County government. Read the Leelanau Ticker’s full rundown of that controversy here.]

Ticker: Any big surprises from your first week – whether positive, negative, or somewhere in between? 

Allen: You know, it’s definitely interesting when you come in day one to a job, and then you’re on day two and you’re reporting to the board and being asked to submit a transition plan! But I was also very grateful for the support of the community coming out for the welcome on Tuesday. There was a break in our meeting to say welcome to me and also a thank you to Chet Janik. So that was very, very touching and very much appreciated.

Ticker: What goes into sketching out the transition plan and making sure the changeover is as smooth as possible for everyone?

Allen: What I'm looking to do is to get up to speed as quickly as possible on several critical issues – so, things like the continuity of the broadband project and the progress that we're making with that for the county. There are some infrastructure issues here on the campus that have been ongoing and that the board has supported, so there are those types of issues, too. And then, of course, there's issues with ARPA funds and making sure that we're optimizing our ability to attract those funds and to be effective and competitive for future projects.

So again, there’s a steep learning curve, especially acknowledging that we've got the holidays coming up and we really only have about a two-week overlap with the current leadership because of the holidays. I’ll be here through the end of the year, but other people have vacations planned or other commitments, so part of the transition planning is recognizing that I really only have two weeks to get up to speed.

Ticker: You’ll be filling the shoes of Chet Janik, who has been county administrator for a decade. I’m guessing he had some good wisdom to pass down?

Allen: Chet has been incredibly supportive through this process. He’s certainly been helpful in introducing me to all the key individuals at the county. We’ve had great opportunities to meet with the department heads and elected officials, and we’ve got meetings scheduled over the next couple of weeks to sit down with those folks and do deeper dives on the projects that are coming up in their departments. And then one of the things that I’ve asked Chet to do is come up with briefings on some of the key checkpoints of things that need to be addressed at the county and that need to move forward. So, he’s currently working on that with me.

Ticker: I’m sure you’re coming in with a vision and with some goals in mind that you’d like to accomplish for the county. Tell us a little bit about the priorities you have in mind.

Allen: Supporting the staff is at the top of the list. We have incredible talent here, and they just need to have the tools and the support to be able to function effectively. Again, I'll be meeting with all of our department heads and our elected officials, figuring out how we can work more efficiently as a team. So that's one of my first priorities. And then, certainly, onboarding the new commissioners is a priority. We'll have four new commissioners in January. We're going to be doing commissioner training this coming week, and I'll be attending that. And then at the end of the week we have an all-day retreat with the new commissioners as well as the outgoing commissioners. So that is definitely going to be a big opportunity for information sharing and for ensuring that there’s good continuity in place for this transition.

So, I’m excited for this coming week. If week one was the appetizer, week two is truly the main course in terms of putting some substance in place. I think it will be where the true learning and the true transition starts.

Ticker: As we head into 2023, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the county that you’ll be playing a role in addressing?

Allen: You know, I'm very mindful that my job is to support the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners. I am their only true employee. So, my job is to support them, and then the direction comes from those commissioners. I don't set policy, but I certainly am a resource for them to make sure that they have the most information possible to make the best decisions. I'm looking forward to that role. It's going to be an opportunity for me to help implement change in a positive way, but that change is really going to be based on how the commissioners see themselves moving forward. And as I said, we'll have a new board, so the goals and priorities will mostly be set in the New Year.

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