A Comfortable Old Shoe

Grant Thomas, center, with 21-year-old son Tyler, and wife Heidi at Koli National Park in the North Karelia Region of Finland in April 2014. Tyler spent six months studying in Finland, which opened the door to Grant making his first overseas trip. Submitted photo.

Just two years after he stepped down as Door County government’s interim administrator, Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas found himself in the top dog position again upon the sudden departure of Maureen Murphy in November.

“In a person’s career, you generally have an opportunity to sort of step in the shoes of the person that was your boss maybe once, but it happened two times here in a relatively short period of time,” Thomas said.

Without much discussion, the Door County Board of Supervisors elected to have Thomas serve as interim administrator a second time, while still functioning as corporation counsel, without extra compensation.

“I think, and I don’t mean this to diminish the role of anybody serving as interim anything, in my circumstance, especially with this second go around, I would make it analogous to an old pair of work boots. I’m a comfortable old shoe,” Thomas said. “People know what to expect of me, know my strengths and weaknesses. They know I’m not going to throw the chair through the window and jump out. There’s some comfort on my end and I think also on the county’s side, having a known entity fill the role on a temporary basis and keep the ship on its path for as long as it takes to get an administrator in the door. I anticipate that process will take eight or nine months, much like the last one did.”

Thomas has served as Door County’s corporation counsel since 1997. Before that he had served as an assistant corporation counsel in Winnebago County, and had been in private practice in Oshkosh before that.

“I moved here from Ohio back in 1988 and was in private practice in Oshkosh until about 1995,” he said.

Thomas left private practice when he became increasingly disenchanted with the business side of things, such as having to drum up clients.

“That’s what made me go from the private to the public sector,” he said. “It’s funny the way things worked out. When I made the transition, I really didn’t expect to remain in a corporation counsel’s office for much more than five or six years. I figured I would try it and see how it worked out and see what other opportunities were available to me. As luck would have it, I found it fit what I wanted to do, especially in a small county like Door County, compared to some of the larger counties. When you’re in a larger county, like Winnebago County, typically you’re going to be a specialist. In Door County I have the opportunity to practice in virtually all areas of the law. That keeps it fun and interesting and challenging.”

At the December meeting of the Administrative Committee, the subject of in-house hires came up, and it seemed a couple members of the committee were suggesting without saying that perhaps someone already working for the county should apply for the administrator’s position.

While Thomas said he enjoys the opportunity to descend from his legal ivory tower and expand his horizons by getting involved in the daily administration of the county, the enjoyment comes with the knowledge that it is temporary.

“I’m more than willing to serve as interim county administrator, but I enjoy being corporation counsel too much to do the job on a permanent basis,” Thomas said. “I honestly think that long-term, the two jobs are probably incompatible. They each have distinct and unique functions. They certainly need to work together but function separately I think to serve the interests of the county long-term. But short-term, it’s something I’m more than willing to do, and I’ve done it in the past, which made me the logical selection this time. Plus the fact that I don’t have any interest in the job long-term, I think, makes it a little bit easier to make the transition from interim to whoever the new regular county administrator will be.

“Another thing that’s personal for me, and I can only speak for myself, I am by nature I think particularly suited to being a corporation counsel in terms of the way I go about consideration of problems and decision making,” Thomas continued. “I have to take off my corporation counsel hat when I’m filling the role of interim county administrator because as county administrator, there’s far more collaboration and sort of the roundtable discussion, consideration of everybody’s view and gathering information, and making a decision that serves any number of interests. In many respects, being an attorney is much simpler. While there are many gray areas in the law, much of what we do turns out to be black and white, and you have a set of facts, you apply that to the law and you make a decision. That’s not a good way to work in terms of the county administrator position. I guess the best way to put it is, by nature I am an autocrat. It works perfectly fine as corporation counsel but it’s not a good character for a county administrator to have. I’m aware of my weaknesses in that area. At least on a short-term I can without too much pain suppress the autocrat in me and do what I need to do as interim county administrator.”