Raleigh’s longtime legal voice on everything from Dix park to racy videos is stepping down

Tom McCormick, who Raleigh hired as city attorney in 1977, on Friday announced plans to retire.
Tom McCormick, who Raleigh hired as city attorney in 1977, on Friday announced plans to retire.

Raleigh will soon lose the man who led the city through hundreds of legal issues over four decades.

Tom McCormick, who’s worked as Raleigh’s city attorney since 1977, announced Friday that he plans to retire. His last day will be Dec. 31.

Despite working out of the public spotlight, the city attorney is among the most influential government employees. His office is often charged with making sure city policies are legally sound, guiding the City Council through its decisions and then defending them in court when necessary.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane noted his role in helping the city negotiate Raleigh’s purchase of the Dorthea Dix property from the state in 2015. The 308-acre property is on the southern end of downtown and formerly housed a psychiatric hospital. The City Council and Dix Park Conservancy are in the early stages of designing a park on the land.

“Dix Park will arguably be one of the most important and iconic civic spaces in Raleigh and the state,” McFarlane said in a news release. “While it will be impossible not to feel the impact of Tom’s absence, his retirement is well earned and deserved. I wish him nothing but the best as he prepares for this next phase in his life.”

Raleigh has changed drastically since McCormick joined the city. It has erected PNC Arena, home of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and N.C. State men’s basketball, and it’s reopened Fayetteville Street to traffic in the heart of downton.

Council members have relied on McCormick’s input on everything from controversial development proposals and police shootings to trying to clamp down on sexually explicit music videos, which the council tried to do in 1995.

Philip Isley, a former city councilman who works as an attorney, praised McCormick for guiding Raleigh through rapid growth.

“I was constantly impressed with Tom’s knowledge and acumen about not only city-related issues, but also other legal and political issues that our council and our city faced while I served,” Isley said. “There have been scores of politicians and several city managers over the past four decades, but Tom has been the consistent ‘hand of the tiller’ while we have navigated such an exciting time in the life of our great city.”

In 1992, McCormick’s team defended city restrictions on billboard size after the city was sued by Naegele Outdoor Advertising Co. The city won its case after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the company’s appeal of a lower court decision.

“It means more signs will be coming down, and it means our theory in the case was right,” McCormick told The N&O after the court’s 1992 decision.

In 1995, former Mayor Tom Fetzer said he received several complaints about a video rap song called “Sex on the Beach” on the city’s community access channel. McCormick told Fetzer and the council that it had no authority to ban suggestive shows.

More recently, McCormick appeared in the news defending the City Council’s decision to block an anti-abortion group from moving into a house next to an abortion clinic. The anti-abortion group is suing the city.

McCormick wasn’t quoted in his retirement announcement, which says “he is looking forward to serving the community in other ways.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht