Kent County Administrator Ken Decker
© 2023 Delaware Business Times
DOVER — Ken Decker had a set list for what he hoped to be his last job: It had to be on the Eastern Shore, it had to be a quality organization and the local government had to be more concerned with the citizens rather than politics.
“Kent County is unusual because it can be somewhat purple,” Decker said, referencing the middle ground between Republicans and Democrats. “From my experience, I’ve seen the commissioners think about the county as a whole rather than partisanship. There were other opportunities, but the unknown factor was just too high for me to get excited about it.”
Decker has been serving as Kent County administrator since March after Michael Petit De Mange retired after 16 years at the helm. Decker himself has a long career in municipal administration, spanning 20 years in the mid-Atlantic region.
He grew up in Libby, Mont., as a scion of a logging family and even worked in the business himself. That’s where he got his passion for “a job that had a roof over his head while he worked,” he joked.
He went on to serve in the U.S. Navy Reserve to gain college tuition and worked to find a purpose. His first job was working with kids and teenagers in homeless shelters and long-term residential treatment centers..
“I’ve always been a public service guy. I just want to do something useful. But the thing that really appealed to me about local government management is you get to build stuff – think roads and bridges and preceding historical buildings. It’s so fascinating,” Decker said. “No days are the same.”
With degrees in economics and journalism and a master’s degree in public administration from Eastern Washington University, Decker took his first municipal job in 1999 as town manager of Hampstead, Md. He worked there for 12 years, overseeing major projects like converting a historical school into an affordable senior living facility and the Hampstead bypass.
In 2011, Decker moved to Caroline County, Md., to serve as county administrator, partially to be close to his in-laws. In 2018, he left and spent the next 18 months traveling across the country, Europe, and Central America. After the sabbatical, he worked as city manager at Altoona, Pa., for a while but left on a mutual decision.
Decker believes that local government has the most impact on people’s lives, but when it runs smoothly, people don’t see it.
“Government is also a faith business. You have to have faith that the government is trying to look out for the people and services the needs of the community. Right now on a national level, you can say there’s almost a crisis of faith,” he said. “I don’t think on a state and federal level, one person can have as much of an impact as they can in local government. That’s why I keep coming back.”
Looking at Kent County, Decker sees a part of what the Eastern Shore once was: swaths of undeveloped land and lacking multi-million-dollar homes.
“When you step here, it’s like stepping back in 30 years. It’s refreshing to have moments like that – of course I’m still told if I’m looking for a house, don’t go east of Route 1 because of the Greenhead flies,” he said.
But on the flip side, that preservation means the county still faces economic development struggles. Cost of living is low, but Decker sees Kent County as a bedroom community, where its residents go to work in Sussex or New Castle counties. One of the biggest obstacles is the county’s zoning ordinance and how rigid it is when it comes to accessory dwellings, something that could affect a senior citizen who may want to live close to their children.
“Homes bring a huge demand for public services but don’t pay much in taxes; commercial properties do. Small businesses are the engine of our economy, and the way I see it is how can we make it easier rather than standing in the way?” he asked.
One moment that stands out to Decker in his long career was the time he served in Caroline County and a man stopped him while he was picking up his Chinese food order. He called, frustrated at the rejections he kept getting for a home office. Decker advised him to get a variance.
“He said, ‘You helped me out on that and that’s how the government should work. I just want to thank you,’” he recalled. “It’s the little things of helping someone out like that.”
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