Bob Guenzel, Washtenaw County’s top administrator and the leader of a wide range of community initiatives, is retiring after 37 years with the county. He informed the board of commissioners on Thursday – the day after the board passed the 2010/2011 county budget – and told the county’s department heads on Friday morning. His last day will likely be May 14.
“It’s been a great run,” Guenzel told The Chronicle.
Guenzel, who turned 68 last month, has indicated an intention to retire for some time, but said he had wanted to see the organization through its difficult two-year budget cycle before setting a definitive date to step down. With tax revenues falling because of a sharp drop in property values, the county faced a projected $30 million deficit over the next two years. While the budget that was passed on Wednesday is balanced, already it’s likely the county will need to make more cuts in early 2010.
The position of county administrator is appointed by the board of commissioners – Guenzel has served in that role since 1994, and for 22 years before that served as the county’s corporation counsel. Board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. couldn’t be reached for comment about the upcoming transition and search for a new administrator. Vice chair Mark Ouimet said commissioners hadn’t yet had the chance to discuss it.
Future Plans, Post-Retirement
Guenzel is an attorney by profession. Prior to joining the county as its first corporation counsel, Guenzel was an Ann Arbor assistant city attorney and a trial attorney for the National Labor Relations Board’s 7th Region in Detroit. He isn’t returning to a law practice, but did say that he’s hoping for another career – albeit one not as stressful or demanding as his current job. He hopes to teach, possibly at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy, where last year he taught two courses in state and local public policy. Other options he said he’ll explore include leadership coaching, consulting and taking on special initiatives within the community.
“I’m not retiring from Washtenaw County – I’m retiring from Washtenaw County government,” Guenzel said.
Guenzel is already involved in a wide range of community activities. He is vice chair of the board for Ann Arbor SPARK, the area’s economic development agency, and is a board member of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and The Ark, among other groups. He was instrumental in developing the county’s Blueprint to End Homelessness and in leading the effort to build the Delonis Center, a homeless shelter located in Ann Arbor. He served as 2008 chair of the Washtenaw United Way Campaign. He is co-chair – along with Ann Arbor District Library director Josie Parker – of the Washtenaw Literacy Coalition, which is working to implement a Blueprint to End Illiteracy. Nationally, he is on the board of the Alliance for Innovation, a group aimed at improving the performance of local governments.
Guenzel cited his work in transforming the county government itself – focusing it on becoming a world-class service provider – as one of his most significant accomplishments. The county employs about 1,350 people, with a 2010 general fund budget of $99 million. Guenzel also said he was proud of the relationships he developed with county commissioners – he’s worked with 62 different commissioners over the years. He said he was incredibly sad to leave, but that he felt like he was leaving the county in good hands.
What’s Next for the County?
Guenzel said that it’s up to commissioners to determine the process for a search to replace him. Mark Ouimet, the board’s vice chair, praised Guenzel’s leadership and organizational skills, and said that “you don’t replace – you move on.”
Ouimet said the next county administrator needs the ability to create a vision, to inspire people to pursue that vision, and to build a strong community presence. The person would also need a deep understanding of finance, Ouimet said, given the economic climate. County government will be substantially different in the future, he said, with fewer employees, fewer resources and more demands. That will require some creative approaches, which will likely include partnering with other governments, nonprofits and the private sector.
Commissioner Kristin Judge told The Chronicle that in light of the difficult economy, it was the perfect time for the board to discuss the county’s overall goals and priorities, and to link that to their search for a new administrator.
Both Ouimet and Judge praised Guenzel for staying with the county through this budget cycle, and said the county would miss his leadership.
Guenzel’s departure isn’t the only transition facing the county. Two commissioners – Ouimet, a Republican from Scio Township, and Democrat Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor – have announced plans to run for state representative, leaving those commission seats up for grabs in the 2010 election. Two other commissioners – Democrats Rolland Sizemore Jr. of Ypsilanti Townshp and Ken Schwartz of Scio Township – have said they are also thinking about making a bid for state office. [See Chronicle coverage: "More Candidates Vie for State House, Senate"]
Further ahead, the county faces a redistricting process that could increase or decrease the number of commissioners that serve on the board, and change the boundaries of their districts. That process, which occurs every 10 years, begins after the 2010 census and will be completed in time for the 2012 election cycle.
“There’s lots of change going forward,” Guenzel said.