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One year in, city manager still loves the challenge

Colleagues call him humorous, efficient and 'decisive yet cooperative'

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD  - Hillsboro native Jesse VanderZanden moved back to Oregon from Alaska with his family last year to take on Forest Groves city manager role. Someone once told Jesse VanderZanden that “if you want to be good at what you do, you have to fall in love with it.”

The advice stuck with Forest Grove’s city manager, whose one-year anniversary on the job was last Wednesday, Aug. 31. Fortunately, VanderZanden has found a place where “I love what I do,” he said last week.

A Hillsboro native, VanderZanden said moving back closer to family in Washington County — after 14 years of managing the Fairbanks International Airport in Alaska — and taking on his new role in the city has “felt like coming home.”

City officials seem equally happy about his arrival.

Those who’ve worked closely with VanderZanden over the past year say his positive attitude shows up in countless interactions with staff and volunteers.

His integrity, ethics and humor are a “constant theme throughout our conversations and interactions,” said Forest Grove City Library Director Colleen Winters. “He’s so genuine in every email and communique about every issue, whether it’s fun or more difficult.”

Winters, who has worked for the city through nine city managers, considers VanderZanden one of the best.

She’s isn’t alone in her praise.

“I think as much as you can look forward to going to work every day, people in Forest Grove look forward to going to work with Jesse VanderZanden,” said Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax.

While the city work environment was good under former city manager Michael Sykes, Truax said he thinks VanderZanden is building on that positive foundation.

“He’s making the city council look smart for the selection they made a year ago,” Truax said, referring to the hiring process last year. “It was not an easy decision but it was the right one.”

With seven council members discussing controversial subjects such as marijuana laws and high-profile developments, there have been tense council discussions this past year.

But Truax said VanderZanden turns standstills into action by noting objections while continuing to move forward.

“I just try to focus on my role in the decision making process,” VanderZanden said. “I try to bring in the most accurate and current information to the council so they can make as informed a decision as possible.”

After arriving at City Hall, VanderZanden immediately found himself in the middle of a controversial community debate over what to do with the old Times Litho site.

“He stepped into a hornets’ nest with that one,” said Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Shutz, who was impressed with how VanderZanden used clear communication to answer everyone’s questions and move the project forward.

The council’s decision to support a luxury apartment complex in the midst of an affordable housing crisis divided city leaders and residents, not to mention there were extra complications from its status as one of the city’s first urban-renewal efforts, VanderZanden said.

More recently, when Councilor Victoria Lowe voted against a temporary ban on outdoor marijuana grow operations, VanderZanden acknowledged her concerns about how the city handled that issue and how a potential grower ended up feeling cheated by the process.

Truax said he appreciates VanderZanden’s patience when council members are hesitant about something.

Fire Chief Michael Kinkade likes how VanderZanden is “decisive yet cooperative.” During discussions about a possible consolidation of western Washington County’s fire departments, “he gets into the details necessary to make it happen but not to the point of paralyzing it,” said Kinkade, who described VanderZanden’s style as “servant leadership.”

“He involves everybody, he listens, he has a team mentality,” said Kinkade, who has seen a lot of city managers over his career and thinks VanderZanden is “one of the best I’ve ever worked with.”

Councilor Richard Kidd III is impressed with the regular check-in meetings VanderZanden holds with councilors. VanderZanden has “formed a good relationship with most of the council and department heads with his communication techniques,” Kidd said.

Next year, VanderZanden will be working with the city

on affordable housing, parks planning, development and a storefront improvement program.

Meanwhile, he’s still enjoying the challenge of his new job — even the tough spots.

Having worked in negative work environments before, he said, he is dedicated to maintaining good morale among staff and volunteers. “I think it’s important for collaboration, it sparks creativity and it helps people find solutions outside the box,” he said.

“You can resolve problems in much less time when two people aren’t on opposite ends of the room refusing to talk.”