Berrien County commissioners interview candidates for open corporate counsel position

Published 3:04 pm Thursday, December 9, 2021

ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County commissioners had a full morning Thursday.

In addition to their regular board meeting where they heard more concerns about mask mandates and quarantines, commissioners interviewed two candidates for the open corporate counsel position.

The morning ended with commissioners agreeing to offer an employment contract with Thaddeus Hackworth for the corporate counsel post. Hackworth and Geoffrey Fields, a Grand Rapids area attorney, were both interviewed by the county board Thursday morning.

The county board is expected to finalize the contract at their meeting next week. The county has been without a permanent corporate counsel in place since James McGovern resigned in March 2020. The most recent interim corporate counsel, retired Judge John Dewane, died earlier this fall.

Hackworth is a St. Joseph native and moved back to the city in the last few years. He spent most of his career in New York City after graduating from Alma College for his undergraduate degree and Georgetown University for his law and public policy degrees.

He told commissioners that he spent the majority of his career in the New York City legal department which serves as the corporate counsel for the city. He said he handled matters for different city departments including the mayor’s office and also worked for the city’s redistricting and Hurricane Sandy commissions.

In recent years, he has continued to work in the disaster recovery area and is a consultant to state governments including a current position assisting the state of Texas. “All the work I’m doing is remote right now,” he said. “I thought it was a good time to stop and think if there’s something else I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

He described himself as a quick learner who is able to brush up on areas of the law he is not familiar with when required.

Commissioners agreed that they had two well-qualified people applying for the job. A secret ballot vote by the 10 commissioners in attendance found a “solid majority” in favor of hiring Hackworth, County Administrator Brian Dissette said. Commissioners then took a voice vote to enter employment negotiations with Hackworth.

The regular county board meeting was hosted an hour early on Thursday morning. It featured action on supporting the Michigan Prosperity Roadmap Plan proposed by the Michigan Association of Counties and others and other items.

Commissioners had delayed action supporting the roadmap last week after concerns were raised that it did not include anything related to agricultural issues. The purpose of the roadmap is to offer guidance to state leaders as to how American Rescue Plan Act and other pandemic funds should be spent.

The resolution approved Thursday does that, mentioning the fact that Michigan leads the nation in the production of several crops and is home to nearly 10 million acres of farmland as well as contributing $104.7 billion annually to the state economy.

 

The bulk of the regular county board meeting again featured citizen concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and how the Berrien County Health Department and area schools are responding to it. Residents have brought their concerns about pandemic restrictions to county commissioners for the last three months.

Aimee Foster, of Berrien County Parents for School Freedom Facebook page, was among those raising questions about actions by the health department in recent months to work behind the scenes with area school districts to keep mask mandates and quarantines in place even after they were officially rescinded.

Foster, along with Sean Hill, Victory Woodall and Richard McCoy, said they have had “good dialogue” with Interim Berrien County Health Officer Guy Miller but have not seen any follow up on the issues they have raised. They asked commissioners to call on Miller to answer people’s concerns in an open forum for more transparency.

Dissette said Miller has been waiting for a response from state officials before getting back to parents. He said that the state is expected to be relaxing its quarantine rules in coming days and weeks.

He noted that decisions are mask mandates are up to local school districts. As for the quarantine rule changes, he asked residents to give Miller time to get “his arms around” the new changes and talk about them to school districts.

In other action Thursday:

  • Commissioners approved applying for grant funding from the Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund to purchase land preservation development rights.
  • The commission accepted the 2022 survey and remonumentation grant from the state.
  • Commissioners approved requested staff complement changes for the Information Systems department.
  • The board approved participation and settlement agreements associated with opioid litigation.