Serving honorably and inspiring greatness: A Q & A with County Administrator Wayman Britt

Rapid Growth: West Michigan is a place that continues to attract folks from very diverse backgrounds to relocate their businesses or homes here. What do you think are key drivers of this migration to our region that we at Rapid Growth have watched accelerate over the last few decades?

Wayman Britt: West Michigan is recognized as a thriving community. We are blessed with a diverse economy, a low crime rate and a relatively low cost of living, compared to most communities our size. We are home to well-known employers like Amway, Steelcase, and Meijer and we have excellent and diverse restaurants and good housing stock. However, housing choices are becoming more difficult as prices rise, and income levels remain stagnant. From the time you arrive at Gerald R. Ford Airport and travel to downtown Grand Rapids, you see a well-maintained community with good roads and signs of growth and development. 

We help to create the environment for this community to live and prosper. From the quality of our services and programs to our policies, the people we hire, and our ability to leverage their talents and skills all make our community better. I believe it is because we have accepted this responsibility and that we dare to believe we can make a difference is why we have seen accelerated growth during the past few decades.

RG: Since mid-2017 when you assumed the interim county administrator title and later in January 2018 as you became officially appointed, a lot has happened within society. What is your approach to driving change and leading others through it

WB: My approach has been to embrace change and my job was to anticipate change, to be a changemaker, and not wait for change to happen. I’m confident about my abilities and experiences and I generally know what needs be in place to deal with issues and problems. It is all about the mindset and your attitude. I am an optimistic person by nature. The glass is always half full, not empty. If you believe that you can solve problems — you can and you will. I had enough successes in the past solving problems and dealing with difficult situations that it made me believe I could do the same and more in my new role. 

I am very comfortable in leading others and challenging them to believe that they have the capacity and ability to make change happen. That they can thrive and be successful. I believe the best is yet to come and, once you make up your mind, anything is possible. I believe that if you can get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, you can work together to solve any problem and that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to do.

RG: As you assumed the role in January 2018, what were the key policy areas of focus? How, if at all, have the focal points shifted over the past two-and-a-half years?

WB: The board of commissioners had just voted in December 2017 to dissolve the Kent County Land Bank Authority, which was a controversial issue. There were many in the community who felt that the land bank was a key link to solving our community’s affordable housing problem. In the end, we had to agree to disagree on the purpose and the value of the land bank in addressing this issue. We initially lost a lot of friends and supporters because of this decision, but we focused on the work ahead. Even though many didn’t believe we cared about the problem plaguing our community, I wanted to win back the trust that we had lost because of our decision. It hasn’t been easy, but I believe we have largely prevailed.

Affordable housing continues to be more of an issue for Kent County because of solid economic growth and the gentrification of older neighborhoods. A recent study found Kent County will need approximately 10,000 new homes and 4,000 new apartments to meet demand and to ensure low-income residents are not displaced. This problem is caused by many of the successes occurring in West Michigan and is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately for us, over the past four years, we have positioned ourselves as a leader and convener to delve into this issue.

Additionally, our focus remains on the health and economic recovery our community. The long-term impacts of the pandemic remain unknown, but business activity has been severely impacted, and layoffs have jolted many sectors of our economy. What will our economy and labor market look like in six months? We also know the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of our residents. What services will be needed? While no one could have imagined we would be navigating through these types of challenges, we are uniquely positioned to develop solutions and lead our community through these unchartered waters.

RG: What are one or two out-of-the-box ideas
that you created in the wake of COVID-19

WB: Most of the ideas and plans we implemented during the pandemic were out-of-box as we were, and are, constantly adjusting operations based on current information and community need.  

We quickly mobilized the Kent County Health Department to establish community testing sites, conduct contact tracing and develop various communication pieces to ensure our community response was timely, efficient, and equitable. And we secured two vehicles to facilitate community-based health services which will allow our clinical teams to eventually distribute COVID-19 vaccines to residents who cannot easily access other vaccination sites. We worked closely with other health care partners, congregate care settings, schools and universities, faith leaders, and businesses throughout the pandemic to ensure access to resources to prevent illness and death. 

I think we have been successful as Kent County’s case mortality rate is lower than Michigan’s overall case mortality rate. Also, rates of infection among the county’s Black residents dropped from a high of nearly 20% in April to 7.5% in September. Rates among Hispanic and Latinx residents dropped from a high of 44% in May to 15% in September. 

In addition, Kent County secured $114.6 million in federal CARES Act funding in April. We established a board subcommittee to analyze the needs of the community and then allocated funding to various community organizations and agencies. We established a $35 million Small Business Recovery Grant Fund that provided support to small businesses; $9.5 million Nonprofit Organization Grant Fund that addressed food insecurity, education, transportation, health care needs; $15 million to cover pandemic-related expenses from local governments, $2 million to schools for coronavirus-related expenses, and more. In all these funding opportunities, we worked to ensure funding was equitably distributed by addressing language barriers, providing training, and conducting outreach to our racial, ethnic, and underserved communities.

RG: Public and private organizations have all had to modify their daily operations over the past several months. With the understanding that governing traditions had to shift as well, how have these shifts impacted participation and/or engagement? 

WB: We have all had to elevate our game and our thinking about private-public partnerships. The County had to become a larger convener and leading force in this equation during the past year. And with this came criticism about which organizations we chose to partner with to deliver services and financial resources. We had to bear this criticism and secure partnerships with organizations we felt were most prepared and capable of helping us deal with this once in a lifetime pandemic. There is a very long list of partners who assisted us over the last year and I am very proud of the results we achieved. I also believe we are in a unique position to garner even more results for the good of the community in the future and for those organizations who have been left out in the past.

RG: Within the public and private partnerships that we often celebrate locally, what have you learned that works, does not work, or needs to change?

WB: Through collaboration, we have witnessed significant successes and challenges. We established partnerships, such as the Kent School Services Network and Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage/First Steps Kent to improve the school readiness and well-being of our children; the Population Health Consortium to address community health priorities; expansion of guardianship services for indigent residents, and more. 

I learned through these projects that our role in government is to empower others — not to disempower them. It’s a funny thing, power. People want to know you understand their goals before they care about your priorities. We would not have been nearly as successful in our public-private initiatives unless we had paused to understand the perspective of our partner. Too often in government, we get this wrong. Now, don’t get me wrong. Our role in government is to keep order, ensure justice is served and provide public services. But in so doing, we must guard against our tendency to over-control which can limit the ability of our partners to be active contributors in finding creative and viable solutions for our community’s problem. 

By empowering others, our private-public partnerships have become the hallmark of Kent County. Quite honestly, many of these projects would not have come to fruition without our collective collaboration and compromise.

RG: We are seeing a greater need for intergenerational dialogue to occur within our community. As successions in leadership on all levels continue to occur locally, what value do you place on mentorship and encouraging further dialogues with the emerging next generation of talent? 

WB: I place a great value on mentorship. Not only for the mentee but for the mentor as mentorship creates growth and awareness for each person to reach their full potential. Without mentorship, I would not have achieved the successes I realized in high school and college nor become a leader at Steelcase or the Kent County administrator. My hope is that others will say that I was a mentor to them and what I did and said was an inspiration and helped them be the best and all they were meant to become.

RG: Kent County has a long history of both addressing diversity and inclusion as well as actively reflecting it within our county government. What call-to-action or advice would you give organizations who, like the county, are seeking to begin or further their inclusivity journey?

WB: My suggestion would be to first take an honest look at yourself as an organization and be willing to listen. Listen to your employees. Listen to your residents, and not just some of them. I believe that Kent County is where it is today because we listened. Leaders before me listened. Dick Platte and Daryl Delabbio listened. Our commissioners and our elected officers listened. I believe I’ve listened too. 

But we need to listen more. And we must consider we are who we are because of what we’ve done — or not done. That we become what we decide to become. Our systems of governing are powerfully designed to give us the results that we’ve been getting — and we have the power to change those systems and the results that we have been getting. It takes courage to change those systems and it takes strong leadership. Leadership that is willing to ask the hard questions. Leadership that is willing to take a risk for the good of the whole of our community and not just segments of the community. Despite the rejection and persecution, you may sometimes face, my advice is to take that risk. 

RG: Looking ahead, what do you hope to see throughout this transition and beyond for you as well the place you have honorably served for 17 years

WB: As I wind down in the role as county administrator — which is very hard for me to do —, I hope to see the team I have assembled fully hit their stride. My hope is that they will achieve more without me. That they are prepared to serve more honorably and to lead greater than I have led.

Photos courtesy of Kent County
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