HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — An Ottawa County commissioner says the county board may have violated state law when it voted Tuesday to select a new person to run the department of public health.
Commissioner Doug Zylstra, a Democrat representing Holland, was the sole commissioner to vote against the motion Tuesday. It passed 7-1 with the support of a slate of newly elected conservative commissioners.
The county received an opinion from former Republican state attorney general Mike Cox in 2021 regarding its authority concerning health officers. The opinion references MCL 46.11 section N and states the board needs to show official misconduct or neglect and hold a hearing for removal of that position.
“In my mind, it’s pretty straightforward that we didn’t have the power to do what we did,” Zylstra told News 8 Friday.
Nathaniel Kelly was selected for the position, which sparked controversy because of comments he has made in opposition to social distancing, masking and other COVID-19 mitigation practices.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has to approve any county health officer and review their qualifications.
“I just don’t see how we would elevate to somebody a position which is already filled and which legally could not have been vacated,” Zylstra said.
Zylstra said the decision the board made was also not transparent. The new members added several agenda items during the meeting, including firing the county administrator and replacing him with former Trump administration employee John Gibbs, closing the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department and changing the county vision statement.
“None of those actions were on the agenda starting at 8:30 when the meeting began. Those were all introduced as the meeting went on with a simple majority vote. Board rules were changed to allow that, so obviously on process and the way we do things, that’s not how we do things in Ottawa County,” Zylstra said.
Gerald Fisher, a professor emeritus with Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School who specializes in municipal law, said the motion did not make explicitly clear if the current health officer would be terminated or serve in another capacity. He said a legal challenge could come down to if the board’s intent was to remove through the motion.
“If they were going to stay on in a capacity working in the same office, then I think a legitimate question would arise of whether or not this would be a removal from office as contemplated in that statutory section,” Fisher said.