Balance of law enforcement/fire and new parks a complicated mix
By BETH ALTENA
“The best government is where things run so smoothly people don’t even notice,” said Cameron Van Wyngarden, the new Plainfield Township Superintendent who took the helm of the township May 6, after the retirement of Robert Homan.
At just 36 years of age, he takes on management of a township of 32,000 residents, has within its boundaries at least three separate school systems (Rockford, Northview, Comstock Park), has two libraries, two fire stations, multiple parks, is the host to a sewer treatment plant that serves five different communities, a water treatment plant and many other amenities and responsibilities that many residents never give a thought to.
Van Wyngarden was chosen from a tight field of qualified professionals this spring and unanimously approved by the members of Plainfield Township’s Board of Trustees. As the new leader of the township serving under the direction and at the pleasure of the board, Van Wyngarden faces opportunities and challenges that many bodies of government are struggling to balance—including our state and national government.
The son of an Iowa hog farmer and grandson of Bastian Van Gilst, a 20 year Iowa state senator, Van Wyngarden was interested early on in politics and government. He came to West Michigan to attend Calvin College and earned a double major in political science and business communications. He continued his education at Western Michigan University, earning a master’s degree in Public Administration. Along the way he met his wife, Cheri, who is now a nurse at Metro Health Hospital in Wyoming. The couple has three children, a twelve year old son, a ten year old daughter, and a seven year old son.
Van Wyngarden said the classes he took in preparation for his future job were reflective of the duties he now faces—communication, budgeting, economics, and human resource management. The field is a competitive one, but jobs are opening up in government positions across the nation as baby boomers reach retirement age.
With his first taste of the workplace – the nitty gritty, smelly arena of the pig farm – Van Wyngarden said he was motivated to choose a different career path. His mother began as a stay at home mother and then entered the public workforce in agriculture tourism in his home state. In Michigan, agriculture tourism is also becoming a more important facet of the economy.
In Iowa, his mother works for Iowa State University Extension where she leads tours to hidden gems of history around the state. . “She takes people to a lot of great experiences that they wouldn’t have thought of,” he said..
As his first job out of college Van Wyngarden worked in Lansing as a legislative assistance to State Representative Joanne Voorhees of Wyoming. “I learned I didn’t care for the political aspect of government,” he stated. “I prefer local government. You get a better feel for the results of your work. You work with the people you serve and have more direct communication.” Van Wyngarden said he could have opted to stay and work in state government, but did not care for the bureaucratic nature of such a career. He ended up working as Assistant City Manager for the City of Greenville (also where Rockford City Manager Michael Young worked prior to coming to Rockford).
He said his duties there included “a little bit of everything” from planning and zoning, economic development and the running of the city’s transit system.
Here he will face more responsibility and said the township has divisions of services that help all departments function and makes oversight of the whole possible. Unlike the City of Greenville, Plainfield Township does not have its own law enforcement department, but relies on a partnership with the Kent County Sherrif’sSherriff’s Department and the Michigan State Police for safety services. Likewise, the roads are managed through the Kent County Road Commission, although townships do provide some financial reimbursement for their roadways.
According to Van Wyngarden, that leaves plenty, from oversight of the fire department, to planning and zoning, water distribution, assessing, tax collecting and other services provided to residents. “There are lots of things that townships do,” he said.
The changing economy of the township is always an important element of management, and Plainfield has a lot to be optimistic about. Van Wyngarden said the entire Ten Mile sports complex project is a huge opportunity. He said just the BMX course portion of the project will bring in many visitors from not only across Michigan, but from other states.
BMX is becoming more popular and in Greenville, the West Michigan BMX Association operates an indoor course in the former Meijer Thrifty Acre store. He believes this community has not yet recognized what an economic impact the multiple sports complex on Ten Mile will mean.
“Those visitors will need hotel rooms, they will need places to eat,” he said. He doesn’t think there are enough accommodations in a five mile radius of the project to fulfill all the needs visitors will have—a guarantee of growth to come. “This isn’t just big for Rockford, Plainfield and Algoma Township, this is a big deal for all of West Michigan. It’s going to be an economic development driver.”
Also up and coming on Plainfield Township’s plate is the development of the Grand Isle Park on the Grand River off West River Drive. He said the park property is “significantly large” and will have a variety of amenities. In part, the acquisition of the acreage and partial development into wetlands will impact future flooding, giving the Grand River someplace else to go when the waters rise, besides residential and business property like we saw earlier this year.
Van Wyngarden said a typical day for him begins by coming into the office and checking emails and attending many meetings during any given day. He said he has been in place now long enough that people know to call him with questions and concerns and he is seeing his visibility in the new position increase.
“I love working with a variety of people in a variety of different projects,” he said when asked what he likes about his job. The downside? “I hate how government tends to move slowly.”
He explained that a slow-moving government is not inconsistent with good government, despite the frustrations citizens may experience watching American politics at work.
“Government is designed to be slow for a reason and that’s to protect the people. The founding fathers did not want things to move fast. There is a benefit to glacial speed.”
He cited zoning issues as an example. “Zoning can have an impact on a lot of people. We may have many, many meetings before a zoning change. We will have a first reading, follow up with another meeting, and have public hearings.” He said the plodding pace of change can be frustrating when you are trying to get something done.
An aspect of his job that, ideally, the public never thinks about is infrastructure. If people flushed their toilets and the waste didn’t go away because the township lacked adequate sewer pipes, “They would notice that.”
“We want things to run so smoothly people don’t even notice it. Who thinks about who mows the grass at your park?” He said sometimes the role of local government is to keep the peace between those with different interests. “Sometimes adjacent land uses don’t work well together. One may be a very noisy industry, the other may be a resident who wants it quiet at night to sleep.”
Very much a new and powerful trend in local government—and perhaps on up in larger government—is partnering between public and private sectors for a common goal.
Grand Isle Park and the Ten Mile sports complex are both clear examples of the creative ways governments have dealt with less financial wealth. Public recreation opportunities at Grand Isle—for instance a disc golf course—are being funded and physically created by a local organization of fans of the sport. Plainfield Township will allow the group to build and maintain the course on the public park with the understanding that the public have access to the course as well.
At Ten Mile, multiple examples of this partnering have allowed the many recreational opportunities to become a reality. The West Michigan BMX group is building and will maintain the course on township property with use allowed by the public. “The big buzzword right now is public/private partnership,” Van Wyngarden stated. “Some of it is the result of the economy. The situation forces you to be more innovative. Some say ‘Do more with less,’ I say ‘find a different way.’ “
In the future Plainfield Township, along with many other state and nationwide townships, needs to evaluate and determine how to provide for the public safety in law enforcement and fire and medical protection. Van Wyngarden said it is another big step for the township and there is no easy answer. A current study showed the township’s response for fire and medical calls is excellent—top notch—but it comes at a high price.
“I do encourage everyone to communicate with their local government,” he said. “If they have a problem they need to communicate it so it can be fixed.”
Welcome to Cameron Van Wyngarden to his position as Superintendent of Plainfield Township.