OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The Ottawa County Finance and Administration Committee, led by members of the conservative group Ottawa Impact, took a step Tuesday toward overhauling the county’s communication system.

The committee voted to approve $20,000 to turn its communications manager position, currently occupied by Shannon Felgner, into a communications director position.

With the change, the information that county departments put out would have to be approved by the communications director. County Administrator John Gibbs made the request, saying other organizations the size of Ottawa County already have this in place.

“We’re gonna keep moving things forward in the right direction,” Gibbs said. “There’s a lot of interesting things we can be doing that a lot of other counties do, such as having podcasts, having video featuring staff, so our staff can show the great people of the county the things they’re working on.”

The entire board of commissioners still must approve the change, which it is expected to do so.

According to the action request, the position “lays the groundwork for the establishment of a Communications Department.” In an interview with News 8 after the meeting Tuesday, Gibbs did not fully commit to making a communications department just yet.

“We’ll see how things work out over time,” Gibbs said. “I think, again, that’s an industry standard practice. It’s what you see with many counties around in many public bodies as well as private companies as well.”

The Holland Sentinel has reported that over the last several weeks Felgner has emailed new directives to county departments on how they should approach releasing information, making social media posts and arranging media interviews. They will reportedly all be subject to administrative review.

Felgner also asked county employees to send press releases to her for review at least 24 hours before they’re sent, according to the emails obtained by the Sentinel.

Felgner, who has spent 24 years working with the county, said the plan will “help us unify our messages.”

“We are one organization, and we need to work together to have a good, unified message,” she said.

She said Ottawa County has a “lot of great stories” and “great programs” to share with the community.

“We’ve already been implementing some ways to make sure that everything goes through the communication’s office, and that’s already been helping some of those departments that maybe don’t have trained communication staff, but they have staff that are tasked with the work,” Felgner said.

“We’ve been able to guide them with some best practices … because they’ve been kind of chugging through doing best with the knowledge and resources they have,” she added. “What centralizing things will be able to do is take the knowledge from the department staff and unify it with my knowledge so we can best reach more residents.”

On Tuesday, Republican Commissioner Rebekah Curran asked Felgner if the changes will result in more moderation of department messages.

“Sometimes there might be language changed or message changed,” Felgner explained. “(Like), ‘Did you think of this?’ or ‘We should also make sure we should add this.’ But censoring a message, no, that’s not what we’re looking at. We’re looking at how we can reach more residents with the message they need when they need it.”

The Ottawa County Sheriff confirmed to News 8 that his department will be exempt from the changes. County Health Officer Adeline Hambley, who has sued the board for attempting to oust her from the position in January, said her department has been asked to submit all press releases for review, according to the emails.

“I noticed that the sheriff, register of deeds, clerk, treasurer, etc. were not included in these requirements,” Hambley told Felgner and Gibbs on May 23, according to the Sentinel.

Hambley then reportedly argued her department should be exempt as well, saying communicating with the public without delay is necessary for a public health department.

News 8 asked Gibbs Tuesday which departments are exempt and which will need to follow the protocol.

“I don’t really want to get into the details of that,” Gibbs said. “What we’re trying to do here, broadly speaking, is really make sure whatever the county message is, we have unified messaging, unified branding, etc. Elected officials are typically on their own as far as those kinds of things.”

Democrat Doug Zylstra told News 8 he hasn’t been made aware of which departments will be exempt.

When News 8 asked Gibbs why the health department is reportedly not exempt, Gibbs replied, “I think we’re gonna work it out fine.”

“I think we have really good communication with them, and we’ll be able to get down a good system so we’re on the same page and we’ll be coordinated with our communication,” Gibbs said. “So yeah, I think it’ll work out fine.”

Republican Commissioner Jacob Bonnema, who is no longer affiliated with Ottawa Impact, voted against creating the communications director position.

“I’m still waiting to see some evidence of fiscal conservatism. It seems the OI commissioners just continue the spending spree. Regarding the communication manager issue, I do not believe there was need to fix something that was not broken,” Bonnema said.

Zylstra asked for the issue to be tabled for six months to see how the new system would work. When that motion failed, he joined Bonnema in voting against creating the new position.

“It could very well be that it works out well,” Zylstra said. “But we need to see that. And unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to see how this is going to work out over time. This has been a three- or four-week pattern put in place. Again, I would’ve liked to see how that actually works out.”

Zylstra argued that Ottawa County residents are already “very informed about what we’re doing here.”

“We’ve had a program in place for a while, it’s worked,” he said. “We can always do better, but I think we’ve done good work over the last 20 years with the existing pattern in place.”

Gibbs called the change “best practice.”

“We want to have coordinated communications to make sure what we’re messaging to the public is consistent, we’re using consistent branding, messaging, etc.,” Gibbs said. “This is something that’s commonplace.”

Commissioners Gretchen Cosby and Sylvia Rhodea were among those backed by Ottawa Impact to speak out in favor of the changes.

Cosby argued Ottawa County is growing, requiring a more centralized communication system. She also said Gibbs has now been in his position long enough to understand “we need to do this differently.”

“There’s so many possibilities for what we can do with messaging and continuing to inform our community about what’s going on.” Rhodea added.

“When we were campaigning, we had so many people ask us, what does county government do?” Rhodea said. “We do so much. And I think our people do want to know what we do. And so, I think it’s a great opportunity to take the county to work and we can start reaching more people.”