County counsel specialized in collaboration, smooth transition



Photo 1: Dan Koorndyk, Chair of the Kent County Commission, center, and Kent County Administrator/Controller Darryl Delabbio, left, come bearing gifts for the retiring Corporate Counsel, Daniel Ophoff.

Photo 2: Surrounded by well-wishers, Dan Ophoff reaches out to introduce just one of some very good reasons for his retirement — his grandchildren.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Though he served municipalities as a litigator and was involved in high-visibility cases, Daniel Ophoff remembers most fondly being able to foster collaboration and cooperation, and facilitating some difficult transitions.

Ophoff has just retired after a little more than five years as Kent County Corporate Counsel. Prior to that he spent 30 years in the City of Grand Rapids Attorney’s Office.

Kent County honored him with an open house last Friday in the commission chambers, which was attended by several family members including his grandchildren. “These are what I’ll be spending my time on now,” Ophoff said, introducing each to the crowd of well-wishers gathered.

A few days before the reception, Ophoff said, “If I have to speak, I’m going to play it as low key as I possibly can,” and he kept his promise, concentrating on thanks to the county board of commissioners and to Kent County Administrator/Controller Darryl Delabbio, who hired him, for the opportunity to serve.

Ophoff says that over the last five years, “I’m probably most proud of the work I’ve been able to be involved in on governmental communication and collaboration between Kent County and the cities of Grand Rapids and around the county. The Administrator Controller believes that that’s the wave of the future.”

Ophoff was instrumental in an “extensive” report  issued about one year ago by the Community Collaboration Work Group of the board of commissioners’ Collab-

orative/Cooperation Subcommittee.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, also an attorney, served as chair of the work group, with Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss vice-chairing. The hand of people who understand the law was evident in such statements as, “There are statutory and constitutional provisions which delineate the services and functions that are provided by each level of government. As a result, collaboration and consolidation of services and functions will likely be more successful when the cooperating governmental units are of the same type and therefore provide similar services such as planning and zoning or fire services, which are primarily city and townships functions.”

The report did not recommend consolidation of governments, noting that national research showed this was not necessarily effective. The work group urged Kent County to foster and support as much collaboration as was practical within the current statutes of Michigan, including the Municipal Partnership Act of 2012, and to work with the legislature to change the law where it imposes barriers.

“The other thing I’m particularly proud of relates to something we were just recently able to accomplish,” Ophoff says. “I worked with a group of people to successfully transition John Ball Zoo. We now have a unified direction and the energy necessary for carrying the zoo into a new level of excellence for Kent County.”

The John Ball Zoo was not the only transition Ophoff has facilitated over the years. During his City of Grand Rapids tenure, as counsel for the Board of Art and Museum Commissioners, he was directly involved with transitioning the Public Museum to private operation.

Since his city attorney position began in 1978, he has worked for most city departments, including as counsel to the Zoning Board of Appeal, Planning Commission, Local Board of Review and the Library Board.

Ophoff worked briefly for a small firm in Holland after receiving his undergraduate degree from Calvin College and his law degree from Valparaiso University Law School.

Primarily a litigator in his job with the city, and continuing to litigate while with the county, Ophoff says. “I always enjoyed working on cases involving law enforcement and representing police officers as they try to do their job. One of the high points for me was just being able to meet these men and women, and provide them defense along the way so they can serve the city or the county as they need to.

“The human contact has really been a big thing, and I’ll miss it,” he adds.

He has tried cases in the Federal District Court, and the Michigan Tax Tribunal as well as arguing appeals in the appellate courts of the state and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

He also drafted opinions, contracts, resolutions, ordinances and other legal documents, both while at the city and for the county. His position with Kent County also involved “making sure that all the work that gets in front of the county commissioners is top notch,” and some work with the legislature on bills that reflect county goals.

Delabbio comments, “Dan uses a thoughtful, deliberative approach to problem-solving and providing legal analysis. I will miss his wisdom and sense of humor.” 

Ophoff’s first post-retirement adventure has begun: he took off for a trip to Israel on March 2. Upon his return, in addition to spending time with his family and those grand-

children, Ophoff intends to do a lot of backpacking. The gifts given him at the open house by Delabbio and by Chair Dan Koorndyk on behalf of the Kent County Commission reflected his interest in the great outdoors.

Ophoff’s replacement, Thomas Dempsey, has already been hired. Delabbio commented, “Tom has a unique combination of experience in both municipal law and municipal management. He is respected in the local government community and brings a wealth of experience to the position.”

Dempsey received his J.D. from Loyola University of Chicago Law School, and practiced municipal law before getting a job as Village Manager for Sparta in 1996. A member of the Michigan Local Government Management Association and the International City/County Management Association, Dempsey most recently was City Manager for Portland, Mich.



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