Two decades of service: Ken Zander retires from community service
DICKINSON — After serving on the Stark County Commission for 20 years, Ken Zander announced his forthcoming retirement last year. In an exclusive interview, he sat down with The Dickinson Press to reflect on his public service career on the commission and some of the accomplishments he is most proud of.
Zander’s journey began in politics after a few personal friends approached him about a potential run for a seat on the Stark County commission.
“Two local community leaders approached me and said, ‘Hey, there's gonna be a vacant spot on the county commission in the next election cycle,’” Zander recalled. “And here we are 20 years later.”
Always an advocate for his constituency, Zander said he always felt like he could make a real difference as a commissioner.
“From the elected offices, being a county commissioner is as close as you can get to the local people and you feel like you have a real connection,” Zander said.
Back when he first took office, he didn’t expect to run for five consecutive four-year terms — but noted his pride in issues he advocated for and changes he helped accomplish.
“I can't take credit for all of the successes, because that's something you do as a board,” Zander said. “But I was very fortunate to have many years with some really dedicated, good people.”
During his tenure, Zander and fellow commissioners created an employee policy handbook and had an HR department established. Zander was directly and instrumentally involved in many building projects across the county, including the county shop, the office building that houses Health and Human Services and the courthouse building expansion, among others. He said he was proud that all of those projects were completed without incurring any additional debt to the taxpayer.
Further, Zander played a critical role in a partnership that brought the Stark County Veterans Pavilion into a reality.
“I was not a proponent of the fairgrounds to begin with,” Zander said of another one of his successful projects. “But once it became reality, I just said I'm all in. I'm going to help make it successful.”
Over the more than two decades of tenure, Zander has held nearly every portfolio a commissioner can hold. Over the years, his direct responsibilities and focus have touched nearly every aspect of county governance.
“What's interesting about portfolios is that you build relationships with those departments and earn their trust, earn their respect and and you develop a relationship with them,” Zander said. “Those relationships can turn into friendships.”
Despite no longer holding some of the portfolios of years past, he was often seen still visiting the courthouse or the county shop daily for most of his 20 years as commissioner.
Zander’s roots in Stark County go back generations, a fact that made the longtime commissioner very proud.
“When I think of Stark County, I think of my family,” Zander said. “My family’s been in Stark County over 100 years. You know, my mother's family grew up on a farm east of Lefor, my dad's family grew up on a farm just east of the airport.”
He and his wife, Chris Zander, were both born and raised in Dickinson, attended high school together and would years later rediscover each other.
“When the first boom hit, Dickinson was kind of fun,” Chris Zander said. “A lot was going on and so we decided to stay here.”
However, after a few years, Ken Zander went on to study criminal justice in college, before graduating and working for the Billings City Police Department. Chris moved to Duluth, Minnesota. Ultimately the romantic in Ken Zander saw him pack up and move to Duluth to be close to Chris.
“After we left Duluth we ended up in Barnes County, where I was a chief deputy,” Ken Zander recalled.
Finally after a few years away, the couple returned to their home in Dickinson following the heartbreak of losing a child at birth.
It was in this difficult time that the couple found strength in each other. What started as a plan to visit home before venturing off to live in Colorado, instead turned into a rediscovery of the beauty in their home county.
The couple officially moved back to Dickinson and Ken Zander began his 30-year career in insurance. The Zanders raised three sons, who now live out of state. They are the proud grandparents to two.
Reflecting on his time as a commissioner, Ken Zander said he feels best about the relationships he built with community leaders, business owners and the general public.
“The guy on the street corner that stops you and says ‘hey, thanks for doing this’ or ‘thanks for doing that.’ – that, I think, gives me the most satisfaction,” he said. “You know, if people have an issue, they'll come to you and say ‘hey, I don't agree.’ I can't remember ever not having those differences settled or worked out.”
While the memories will always be something Ken and Chris Zander will cherish, the couple both say they look forward to spending more time away from the limelight. He on his wood lathe hobby, where he crafts everything from lamps to tables at his home and her in her many passions and the church.
“As a commissioner and chair of the board, I'd like to thank Commissioner Zander for all his years that he dedicated towards Stark County,” Carla Arthaud said of the retirement.
She and the other commissioners thanked the quiet spoken public servant for his time and service during his last Stark County Commission meeting on Nov. 1.