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Cordes retires: ‘I’ve taken a lot of shots, but I leave extremely satisfied’

By Ralph Echtinaw

After more than six years on the job, Gratiot County Administrator Tracey Cordes, 63, has announced her retirement.

Cordes was hired on a 4-0 county commission vote in October 2016 and started work on Nov. 1. Commissioners who voted to hire here were George Bailey, Sam Smith (both still on the board), John Rennenberg and Tim Lambrecht. (Commissioner Jan Bunting was absent that day but opposed hiring Cordes, as you’ll see in her comments below.)

Cordes told commissioners she will work full time this month, take two weeks off in early February and be “available” for the rest of the month. She expects her last day to be Feb. 28.

The current commissioners are expected to enlist the services of the Michigan Municipal League in finding a replacement for Cordes. 

In fact, that’s how they found Cordes in 2016.

Tracey Cordes hopes to be able to take a few more trips on her Harley Davidson motorcycle in retirement.

She was at the tail end of a 14-month sabbatical after six years of pulling down $160,000 a year as a US District Court unit executive in Grand Rapids when the MML contacted her to see if she was interested in the job. 

Gratiot County administrator pay was half what she was getting from the district court, but Cordes had no desire to return to courts administration.

“The values in the federal judiciary didn’t line up with my personal values,” she said in a sit-down interview with this reporter on Friday, Jan. 6. “And I had reached the point where I had climbed the ladder and gotten as far as I cared to go. My values changed. And I wanted my personal values and my place of employment, the job I was doing, to line up.”

Cordes characterized her 14-month sabbatical as “a wonderful year. I did a lot of volunteer work. So when Gratiot County came along I though, ‘You know, that does line up!’”

“Some people understand something in five minutes. Other people need five hours.”

County Administrator Tracey Cordes

The Gratiot County job reminded her of the work she did for Coos County, Oregon, where she was legal counsel for a three-member commission without a county administrator. Gratiot County “appealed to me then, and it really appeals to me now,” she said. “I love rural, small communities.”

That meant working with the five-member Gratiot County Commission, which was refreshing to Cordes after being surrounded by lawyers in the District Court. “Working with elected officials is challenging but also wonderful at times because these truly are citizens,” she said. “Working with a citizen board has often been really satisfying.”

Cordes began the new job in October 2016 and “was surprised by the lack of administrative infrastructure (and) the lack of professional services. There was an individual in this department. I asked her was her job, this or that, and she said, ‘I don’t really know.’

“I was surprised by the amount of work there was to do here to establish a professional organization with more centralized services that could support every department in basic functions like their budget, their hiring and training processes, because that was all kind of dispersed.”

‘A darn good orchestra’

Cordes likened her position as county administrator to the conductor of an orchestra. “I pick the music,” she said. “But I just stand up there and wave my arms. It’s everyone else who plays those instruments and plays them well or not well. And I think we’ve built a darn good orchestra here.

“A successful organization isn’t just one that has a good leader. It’s the one that brings on great people. That’s what builds and sustains your organization. I’m just dazzled by the people here.”

Cordes named a few of the people she brought on board. “You look at the people here that have been hired into essential functions and it’s got to knock your socks off,” she said.

Key personnel hired

Her first hire was Finance Director Chris Oosterhoff  in July 2017. That was a new position for Gratiot at the time, and it was controversial, as some commissioners believed the county administrator should be her own finance director. “I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t say that Chris Oosterhoff has turned things around,” Cordes said.

Cordes also mentioned Information Technology Director Matt Hewitt (hired in May 2018), Equalization Director Keegan Bengel (May 2019), Human Resources Director Sheila Barnaby (December 2020) and Veterans Affairs Director Nancy Bozzer (May 2021).

Bengel “came in with experience, energy enthusiasm the ability to communicate with people. He quickly became a leader,” Cordes said. 

Hewitt “turned the IT resources around here. This organization is as secure in its IT functions as it can possibly be.”

Bozzer “will knock your socks off.”

Late last year Cordes tried to get Barnaby (of Human Resources) a promotion and raise, but commissioners voted 3-2 against.

Collaborative management style

Cordes’ management style has been one of collaboration, she said. “Every now and then I have to say, ‘This is how it’s got to go.’ But I don’t know that I’ve ever started that way. I make sure an individual knows what the goals are and what outcome we’re looking for. I know a little bit about a lot of things. But I need the experts there to take it and run.”

Dealing with commissioners

Cordes must also deal with five county commissioners who don’t always agree with what she proposes.

“Board members are like everyone else in that there’s a tendency to resist change even when it’s very necessary,” she said. “So to propose things that are necessary based on your experience and understanding of organizations is not always going to be popular with board members. Sometimes there needs to be a great deal of discussion among them.”

“In this business you deal with a lot of change. You simply adopt the philosophy that you’re going to work with whoever the citizens send you. And the way you work doesn’t change that much because the values here are transparency, access to information and access to staff. 

“Nothing is a secret. Some people understand something in five minutes. Other people need five hours. And we will spend that time because our role is to support everyone in what they’re doing and to help people be successful. That’s true with the board. It’s true with the custodial staff. So it doesn’t matter who the board members are. Or even who the officers are. What we do and the way we do it really doesn’t change and certainly our core values don’t change. The core value is customer service and supporting everyone in what they do.

Summing up

“We’ve accomplished a lot, and there is so much that people don’t see. They see the outcome. But they don’t know how we got there. It took a lot of hard work. It took some battles. I’ve taken a lot of shots, but I leave extremely satisfied. I did what I came to do. I did what I was asked to do. And so it’s time for someone else to pick it up and take it into the future.”

This reporter reached out to county commissioners Sam Smith, George Bailey, Jan Bunting and former commissioners Chuck Murphy and John Lemmermann for comment on Cordes’ retirement. All but Murphy responded.

John Lemmermann

“I really enjoyed working with Tracey Cordes,” said former Commissioner John Lemmermann by email. “She is gifted at taking the current situation, envisioning future scenarios and then articulating and leading toward her vision. I was also impressed with her grace under pressure. She’s been very good for Gratiot County, and I hope she finds fulfillment in retirement.”

Sam Smith

“I believe Tracy did a good job for the county,” Smith said by email. “I think she brought some structure to management of the county and leaves us with a good team in place. I know she also attended many meetings representing the county and did that well. I wish her well in her retirement.”

George Bailey

“We hired Tracy to affect change to more of a business model to serve the people of Gratiot county,” Bailey said by email. “To that end, we improved equalization department, IT department and financial department worked with all department heads to improve their services to the citizens. We have been able to consolidate and save the county thousands of dollars. We were also able to implement a blight program to assist the townships and their blight problems. Tracy also served on a committee that helped bring a solution to the tax of the Detroit Edison (wind) turbines. She has been a great asset to Gratiot County. I am sure that I have forgotten many things. She was well respected throughout our community. She will be greatly missed.”

Jan Bunting

Bunting’s comments stand out, as she was the only one not to praise Cordes. “I was there for her interview,” she said by email. “That was a Friday afternoon in October 2016. There was five candidates that applied for the job. Three were men who had been administrators for another county. One of those men was also a CPA. There were two women who had other jobs, but did not have any experience being administrator. At the end of the interview Mr. Bailey, who was chair at the time, asked us to put on paper our thoughts on who we thought would make the best administrator and rank them one to five. We were going to talk about this more on the following Tuesday and at that time take our vote. I left around 5 o’clock to go to a parade in Breckenridge. Our meeting was over. 

“The following Tuesday Mr. Bailey had talk to the other commissioners and said that he wanted to see Mrs. Cordes be the next administrator,” Bunting continued. “I was surprised. I did not vote for her. She was the least qualified to do the job. The only thing she had behind her was that she was an attorney and had worked in court houses.”

Bunting responded a second time to the same email. This time she said “You should look up the definition of what an administrators job does. And my comment is ‘no comment.’”

Kurt Giles

St. Louis City Manager Kurt Giles had this to say about Cordes: “Her leadership in the county will certainly be missed. We appreciate all of her efforts to advance Gratiot County and the cities, villages and townships within.”

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