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Fifteen years later, Neuzil is stepping out

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil leaves Iowa for Kalamazoo Co.

By Lori Lindner
Solon Economist
IOWA CITY– Last month, Johnson County bid farewell to one of the area’s most well-known citizens.
Terrence Neuzil served on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for 15 years. He resigned his position to take a job as the County Administrator of Kalamazoo County, Mich.
Dec. 20 was Neuzil’s last day serving his hometown constituents.
A fifth-generation resident of Johnson County, Neuzil’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Bohemia in the early 1860s. Coming from a long line of people who were integrally involved in their communities– as business owners and public volunteers– Neuzil’s father Ralph was the youngest person ever elected as Johnson County Attorney, at the age of 27. Neuzil said his father’s active participation in so many civic groups inspired him to become involved as well.
He began working at radio station KCJJ in the late 1980s, and laid the foundation for public service by becoming active in various organizations. His priorities were helping people with disabilities, advocating for children and supporting the arts.
Neuzil also became interested in government at a young age. He was elected class president at City High School and served on the student senate as a political science/history major at the University of Iowa.
“Even in high school, I was already thinking about how I was going to become the president of the United States, or governor of Iowa, or a congressman,” Neuzil said.
Later, working on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and taking a job as a clerk for Iowa Senator Bob Dvorsky shaped the early years of Neuzil’s political career. In 1995, he made a bid for a seat in the Iowa state legislature– at the request of the late legislator Minnette Doderer, he said, who changed her mind at the 11th hour and ran against him instead. After losing to Doderer by about 200 votes, Neuzil said, he saw an opportunity to reflect on how to do things better.
“I needed to become more involved in the business community and the university community,” said Neuzil. “I decided to run for the board of supervisors in 2000, and that’s how it worked out.”
Fifteen years later, Neuzil reflected back on the progress Johnson County has made during his nearly four terms in office.
“In 2001, we started the county’s first organized strategic plan,” he said. “Projections at that time were for the county to grow by 30,000 to 40,000 residents over 10 to 15 years.” That projection served as an impetus for creating a long-term master plan for facilities and infrastructure, Neuzil said, to address space needs well into the future. It also spurred a great deal of investment into new technology and brought more transparency to the county’s operations and government.
“We were talking transparency close to 15 years ago; that has just become the buzzword for everyone else today,” said Neuzil. “We are now the winner of the Sunny Awards, and everyone can see– to the penny– where their tax dollars are being spent.”
A third major investment Neuzil is particularly proud of is the county’s investment into its trail systems.
“One thing that came out of that early (2001) planning was that we weren’t going to build another road in Johnson County that didn’t have a shoulder,” said Neuzil. He said the proposal was partly selfishly motivated– in 1996, he was sideswiped by a truck while riding his bike to work on Sand Road, and knew bicyclists needed a safer way to share the road– and partly because shoulders preserve and protect the conditions of the roadways longer.
Looking back, Neuzil feels the county has realized many successes that were laid out in its first strategic plan, and he’s glad to have been a part of the process. But he gives credit where it’s due.
“Nothing can be done unless you have an amazing amount of work ethic in your staff, and an emphasis of mission. The mission in Johnson County is always about public service,” said Neuzil. “When you think of the mentality our employees have, they actually want not only the best public service for their residents, but also the best government in the entire United States. None of that can be done without that team work ethic.”
Neuzil said he learned some of his most valuable lessons about public service from former supervisor Charlie Duffy, who retired from the board in the late 1990s.
“Charlie taught me that it’s really important to get out in the community. There was never a time when you didn’t see Charlie at any community events. I’ve tried to mirror that,” said Neuzil, as he leaned back in his chair in his office at the administration building. “I’m sitting in Charlie’s chair, and I’m telling you; it is probably the most uncomfortable chair I’ve ever sat in. And I wanted this chair. I wanted it to remind me not to sit in this office too much.”
Staying hidden in his office was never Neuzil’s strategy. He held 600 public listening posts as a Johnson County Supervisor and was present at local parades, pancake breakfasts and soup suppers, volunteered as the lead public information officer for the county’s emergency management department and regularly emceed events at the Johnson County Fair. The 45-year-old Neuzil has never taken a sick day in his life.
“I hope I never lose the ability to get out in the community. There is nothing that keeps you on your toes more than to get out and have people ask questions, and I want people to see that the Kalamazoo County Administrator is going to be very much out in the community.”
Neuzil said he will carry the same philosophy as he moves into his new position as the Chief Executive Officer of Kalamazoo County. He plans to hold listening posts and be present at community functions as much as he ever did here.
“I think what they are looking for is an outgoing leader who will make sure that Kalamazoo is at the table at each and every significant issue going on in their community, and I plan to be that individual,” he said.
As the County Administrator, Neuzil will help lead his staff and advise 11 county commissioners in the areas of facilities and master planning. He will also assist with creating a joint emergency dispatch center, much like the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) built here in 2009.
Kalamazoo will benefit from other experiences Neuzil brings from his 15 years of service in Johnson County as well. Like Johnson County, Kalamazoo, with a population of around 255,000, has seen rapid growth in recent years.
“Affordable housing is a challenge for them right now, and they are dealing with a lot of the social issues that communities face in trying economic times. They are fortunate to have community leaders who have been smart about investing in quality of life,” said Neuzil. The area has many art venues and art-oriented events, local foods feature prominently in restaurants, the county’s recreational parks and trail systems are well-developed and Kalamazoo County is home to Western Michigan University, Nazareth College and Kalamazoo College, all lending a vibrancy similar to that of Iowa City.
“There are a lot of similarities to Johnson County,” said Neuzil. “There are a lot of neat things that area is developing. One thing I will miss most is emceeing events, deep-frying Oreos at the county fair, and all those other fun things. But I’m not that far away.”
Neuzil offered parting advice to those who will run for the seat to finish his term, which expires in December 2016. On the ballot in that election are Democratic nominee Lisa Green-Douglass and independent candidate Chris Hoffman.
“You’ve got to have a couple of solid rocks in your life; for me, it’s my wife Amy and my brother John,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to have a life and this job– any job that provides service to the public– there are going to be people who just don’t like your decisions.”
As for Neuzil’s decisions of the past 15 years, he takes no credit.
“I don’t want any credit for anything,” Neuzil said. “It got done because of the work ethic of the employees of Johnson County. There’s a reason why everybody loves this area. It’s because it’s just a really cool place to be, but you can’t do that without a vision and people who want to be part of it.”
And that will inspire his new career goal, he added.
“Now, I want to make Kalamazoo County even better than Johnson County,” he said.