When Tom Dempsey took over as Kent County’s corporate counsel, it gave him a chance to utilize his legal and municipal skills in one job. Photo by Michael Buck
Kent County’s new corporate counsel did a lot of legal work for municipal governments at a Grand Rapids firm before becoming the actual manager in two municipalities. Now he’s back working strictly as an attorney again — but still in government.
Tom Dempsey, 51, was hired in March to replace Kent County Corporate Counsel Dan Ophoff, who retired March 31 after serving almost six years in that position.
When he accepted the job, Dempsey was city manager of Portland, a bedroom community of 4,000 on I-96 between Grand Rapids and Lansing. He had held that job since 2003, and before that, had been the village manager in Sparta from 1996 to 2002.
Dempsey, a Chicago native, “has a unique combination of experience in both municipal law and municipal management,” said Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio. “He is respected in the local government community and brings a wealth of experience to the position.”
Dempsey’s mother was a juvenile court judge in Chicago and his father worked as a business consultant and as a top executive at several corporations.
Upon graduation from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Dempsey was hired in 1987 by Bloche, French & Raysa, a small Chicago firm where much of his work involved representing local municipal governments.
After growing up in Chicago and graduating from Loyola, Dempsey said he assumed his career would always be in Chicagoland. Then he met his wife-to-be, Karen, who is from Chelsea in southeast Michigan. After they married, she wanted to return to Michigan; they compromised on West Michigan because Dempsey had spent summers at a family cottage near Baldwin and liked the west side of the state.
Dempsey had enjoyed his municipal legal work at the Chicago firm, “so when the opportunity came to move to Michigan and do municipal law 100 percent of the time, we jumped at it.”
That opportunity was in 1993 at the firm of Clary, Nantz, Wood, Hoffius, Rankin and Cooper in downtown Grand Rapids. Three years later the firm dissolved, and Dempsey made the jump to municipal management. The Dempseys were living between Rockford and Sparta, and he had done legal work for Sparta, which just happened to be looking for a new village manager, “so it seemed like a good opportunity.”
Dempsey said there are a lot of similarities in his duties as Kent County corporate counsel compared to his work as a municipal manager. A city manager works daily with publicly elected officials, and the same is true for corporate counsel in a major city or county government.
“In many ways, I was dealing with the same types of issues” as a municipal manager: working with elected policy-making boards, dealing with the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act requests — “and a lot of contracts,” he said.
Kent County is the state’s fourth largest in terms of population, with about 614,000 residents in 2012. It is 864 square miles with nine cities, five villages and 21 townships.
One of the functions of the Kent County Corporate Counsel office is to ensure that all departments are aware of their legal responsibilities. The county has 28 departments, he noted, presenting “a huge challenge in itself” to become familiar with each one and the people who run them.
“We work with them on a cooperative basis, on their civil legal issues,” he said, noting that for many, the issues are “transactional — it’s going to be contract issues.”
Some of the departments led by elected officials, such as the sheriff’s department and treasurer, have budgets for outside legal services because the three lawyers in the Corporate Counsel office would never be able to do all the required legal work. Delabbio also noted the county drain commissioner department and the airport have separate legal assistance.
“The county is always being sued,” noted Delabbio, which is normal for any American county or municipality with a large population.
Delabbio said the Corporate Counsel budget is part of the county administration budget; this year it ranges from $360,000 to $370,000, covering compensation and expenses of Dempsey and the two assistant corporate counsel attorneys: Linda Howell and Sangeeta Ghosh. There is an additional $45,000 budgeted in the general fund for outside counsel on questions that require more specialized legal experience.
“I am amazed at what the county does,” said Dempsey. “I had no idea of the scope and breadth of county government in terms of what the county delivers in services to county residents. So I have to get familiar with all those departments and their legal issues.”
Right now, he noted, his department is monitoring 16 legal actions involving the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. In many large counties, the sheriff’s department is the most sued, noted Dempsey, and many of those suits are filed by inmates serving sentences in the county jail.
As many corrections officials know, amateur “jailhouse lawyers” file civil suits for all manner of real and imagined grievances, large and small, down to and including the food. But it is probably the Freedom of Information Act that has generated the most frequent legal tasks at city halls and county buildings.
“The county handles over 3,000 Freedom of Information requests every year,” said Dempsey. Those are filed with virtually any of the county departments and usually require some basic legal training to handle.
“We train the Freedom of Information Act coordinators in each of those departments that handle most of the routine requests,” he said.
Most of the requests do not come from the news media. They are mainly from private citizens who “want information on how their government operates, or they want some records,” he said. “It’s not just the Business Journal and Channel 8 and The Grand Rapids Press.”
Dempsey is a member of the Michigan Bar Association, the International City/County Management Association and the Michigan Local Government Management Association. He and his wife, Karen, have three adult children and they still live in Portland but are planning to move to Grand Rapids.
Dempsey said he appreciated former Kent County Corporate Counsel Dan Ophoff spending his last week with him in March, going over key details about the department and the job.
Ophoff had 35 years of experience in legal work involving municipalities. His career in government began in 1978 when he joined the city of Grand Rapids’ legal department, and that experience was a great help when he went to work as Kent County Corporate Counsel in 2008.
“I hope that one of my biggest achievements was to facilitate collaboration and communication between the city of Grand Rapids and the county,” said Ophoff. “I’ve seen improvements based on group efforts; so many people have worked to accomplish that.”
Ophoff received his undergraduate degree from Calvin College before graduating from Valparaiso University Law School. He has worked on cases before the state and federal courts, including the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Dan has the demeanor of a ‘wise sage’ and was able to offer the necessary advice in a way that got the point across and in a manner that was well-received by those who sought his advice,” said Delabbio.