OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners ousted the county administrator and installed John Gibbs in the office amid a flurry of added agenda items from the board’s conservative contingent, also replacing the county’s top health officer and eliminating its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department.
The shakeup came Tuesday at the board’s first meeting of the year, during which several new commissioners elected in November took their oaths of office.
Commissioners voted 6-3 to approve a resolution that fired John Shay as county administrator and appointed Gibbs to replace him effective immediately.
Gibbs was an employee of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Last year, he was the Republican nominee to represent Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. He was defeated by Democrat Hillary Scholten.
The motion from Commissioner Sylvia Rhodea of Allendale Township was greeted with loud cheers and clapping from meeting attendees.
“Our voters spoke very clearly about wanting a change in direction in our county and county leadership starts at the top with the county administrator,” Rhodea said. “And so out of respect for our voters and the need to have leadership in our county which fully aligns with the Board of Commissioners and who will cooperate and work fully and transparently with the Board of Commissioners, we believe it’s important to appoint John Gibbs.”
She said Gibbs was “much loved” in the county, saying he had strong support during last year’s elections, and described him as “way overqualified” for the job.
“I just believe that the direction we’re going is different,” Commissioner Roger Belknap, who represents the Grand Haven Township, Robinson Township and Spring Lake Township areas, said. “I just think that bringing him into that, based upon how he was trained and where he was aligned with the previous board, going in a new direction, I think we have an opportunity to start fresh.”
Commissioners Roger Bergman of the Tri-Cities area and and Doug Zylstra of Holland spoke against the change. Bergman said Shay was hired unanimously for his qualifications and said he was “appalled” by the motion to fire him.
Commissioner Rebekah Curran of Georgetown Township said she was voting no because she was “blindsided” by the motion. Though she said Gibbs was a “fantastic candidate,” she said she wanted to give Shay the benefit of the doubt and give him the chance to work with the board.
Zylstra also seemed baffled by the move, wondering why it was happening and saying Shay had served the county well since being hired in March 2022.
“For me it was an extremely disappointing meeting,” Zylstra told News 8 Tuesday evening. “(I’m) disappointed in the events of what happened and disappointed in the way that it happened.
“Firing four key employees and having that firing come through an amendment to an agenda with no public notice — I just think both of those two actions are going to have a lot of negative repercussions in Ottawa County for a long time.”
He said he feels “sad for the employees of Ottawa County,” and that the moves “takes a lot of confidence and faith away” for the community.
Zylstra said while he will look for common ground with his colleagues in order to serve residents, “it will be very hard to find a lot of common ground after a meeting like today.”
Gibbs offered brief comments after his hiring was approved, starting by congratulating the board members on their election.
“It shows that the people are still in charge. The Founding Fathers are looking down right now and are very proud of what’s happening right now,” he said. “…Thank you to everyone for your prayers for the board and for Ottawa County. Those are being answered as we speak and will continue to be answered.”
He went on to say he would be accountable to the board.
“…Even though I am the administrator, I’m not in charge, the board is in charge,” he said.
DIVERSITY DEPARTMENT SHUT DOWN
The resolution to hire Gibbs was added to the agenda during the meeting. Also added by Rhodea and passed 7-1 was a motion that changed the county vision statement from “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings.”
In yet another added agenda item, Commissioner Lucy Ebel of Holland Township moved to close the department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department, which was created in 2018. That motion passed 7-1.
“I heard stories (while campaigning) of people applying for jobs and they told them they couldn’t get hired because they were white,” Ebel said. “That is hiring based on color and that is not equality.”
She said she promised constituents that she would get rid of the DEI department.
The department was created with the support of private donations. Zylstra moved to give the donors their money back. Without a second, the motion failed.
“They (the donors) really did get a lot of value for their money and they were effecting change — so much change that we are here today,” Rhodea said. “It affected our people, it affected our children and our county. This is a divisive agenda. And that’s why we’re changing the county motto and that’s why we’re seated at this table today, because our community recognized it as a destructive agenda that we do not want for our county.”
Many businesses like to do businesses in communities with DEI programs but Gibbs said he doesn’t think the elimination of the office will affect business.
“They’re going to want to invest here because they can get the high-quality employees and their employees are going to have a high quality of life, living in our great Ottawa County here,” Gibbs told News 8. “That’s why companies come here. We’re going to actually improve that. We’re going to continue to improve the quality of life. We’re going to be working with the sheriff’s department. We’re going to be working with everybody to make sure housing is affordable and all of the other items on the agenda.”
In a statement to News 8, Progressive Lakeshore said it was “appalled” by the decision.
“We’re appalled by the short-sightedness of this decision and concerned for what that means for businesses and individuals in our county,” it said. “DEI initiatives make communities more welcome for all and expand the talent pool for our business community. This commission has moved our county back 50 years in one fell swoop.”
In a Facebook post, the group had encouraged residents to attend the Ottawa County Commission meeting on Tuesday.
“It’s critically important to get and stay engaged in what’s happening here as the Ottawa County Commission resumes work with nine, new, extremist candidates on the 11-member council,” it said in the post. “These inexperienced and dogmatic conservatives were funded by Ottawa Impact PAC to support their extreme, right-wing political agenda. There’s a lot at stake.”
Commissioner Allison Miedema, who represents the northeastern part of the county, added a motion to remove the county’s Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley and replace her with Nathaniel Kelly. The motion passed 7-1. Hambley will hold the role on an interim basis until Kelly’s hiring is approved by the board and confirmed by the state health department.
Commissioner Gretchen Cosby of the northwestern part of the county added an agenda item to hire Cindy Driesenga as administrative director to Board of Commissioners, a new part-time role. The resolution indicated Driesenga’s role will be to coordinate with the chairs of standing committees and report back to the commissioners. It passed 8-0.
The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners is now made up of a majority of Republicans who were endorsed by the conservative political action committee Ottawa Impact.
“I believe this was the culmination of a lot of people involved, a lot of voters,” one of those Republicans, Commissioner Roger Belknap, who represents Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Robinson townships, told News 8. There was a groundswell of votes that I think led us to this point and the results of our election this year. It’s, I know, something that’s never happened at this level before in Ottawa County.”
Ottawa Impact first gained attention in 2021 when it allowed an anti-vaccine group to march in the Georgetown Township Memorial Day parade it organized. In September 2021 Target 8 Investigators attended a free lunch Ottawa Impact hosted for pastors with the mission to “preserve the conservative Christian heritage of Ottawa County.” The featured speaker urged pastors to direct parents to pull their kids from public schools, which he said were indoctrinating children against God.
News 8’s Joe LaFurgey, Lucas Stier and Madalyn Buursma contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the day of the meeting while referencing a Facebook post. We regret the error, which has been fixed.