OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Residents questioned the transparency of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners during its meeting on Tuesday, its first since it pivoted from its meeting agenda and approved a shakeup that included ousting board-appointed leaders.
On Jan. 3, the commissioners backed by conservative political action committee Ottawa Impact approved several last-minute agenda items, including firing John Shay as county administrator, installing John Gibbs in the office, replacing the county’s top health officer and closing the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department.
Eight of the 11 commissioners are backed by Ottawa Impact, a PAC angry over mask mandates and other COVID-restrictions.
QUESTIONS OF TRANSPARENCY
The meeting Tuesday drew a large crowd, with some being directed to an overflow room after the commission chambers filled. Forty-two speakers addressed the board, some applauding its recent moves and some highly critical, questioning what they called a lack of transparency.
One could argue none of the moves made by the new board should be a surprise: Ottawa Impact’s agenda spells them out and voters backed the eight candidates in the November election.
But Ottawa Impact-backed 4th District Commissioner Jacob Bonnema said the process needs to be more open.
“I was uncomfortable with that and how that took place. I think other commissioners were as well. And so what I’m trying to do is work hard with my fellow commissioners to improve that process,” he told News 8.
“We have a lot of people that are really good people that care about their constituents,” Bonnema said. “But I think that it was unnecessary to move this quickly. I think we can accomplish our campaign promises in a way that is good governance.”
Many in the audience contend that even if the board didn’t violate the state‘s Open Meetings Act in taking last week’s actions without formal public notice, it at the very least violated the spirit of the law.
“Clearly, you are governing the same way you campaigned, in well-coordinated secrecy, driven by dogma over truth and with a complete lack of integrity and transparency,” one person said during public comment.
“I’m just curious if the commissioners could just take the time before the next meeting, maybe get into the dictionary and look up the word ‘transparency.’ Obviously you don’t know what it means,” another resident said.
One person questioned who the commissioners are serving:
“The new board members here had to sign a contract with Ottawa Impact. My question is who are they serving: the citizens or Ottawa Impact?” he said. “How can you serve two? Because this is a public entity.”
“Replacing skilled administrators with unqualified friends and family is undemocratic,” another speaker said. “Shuttering our DEI office is unbelievably regressive, damaging our reputation as a community and diminishing local businesses’ efforts to attract global talent to our area.”
Last week after the shakeup, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office said it was looking into the commission’s actions. The AG’s office referenced the Open Meetings Act in a statement, though it did not flatly accuse the commissioners of violating it.
Newly-elected Board Chair and Ottawa Impact founder Joe Moss would not answer New 8’s questions about the transparency of the board.
Instead, as he walked towards the county administration offices, he moved to block the door to the outer office and told News 8, “You may not enter this room. This is a restricted area.”
It was not the only question of transparency Moss ducked.
The board voted 6-5 to confirm hiring Lansing-based Kallman Legal Group as its general counsel. That process had been started last week. Some commissioners, including some backed by Ottawa Impact, wanted to get contract bids, but a vote to postpone the hiring and accept bids from other law firms fell 5-6.
David Kallman, who heads up that firm, is Moss’s business partner’s uncle. An online commenter asked why Moss didn’t reveal that connection when voting to hire Kallman. Moss did not reply; he had said earlier commissioners would not answer specific questions during public comment.
“There is no conflict of interest. But thank you for asking,” he told News 8.
Two Ottawa Impact-backed members of the Allendale Public School Board successfully pushed on Monday to have the school change to Kallman Legal Group.
WHERE YOU BELONG?
The 42 speakers had mixed messages for the board.
Some questioned if the changes, including getting rid of the vision statement “Where you belong” in favor of “Where freedom rings,” meant some are no longer welcome in Ottawa County.
“I imagine that every person of color felt a slap in the face or a gut punch after the last meeting. I know that as an employee, I sure did. Are there residents now who don’t belong?” one person asked.
One Holland-area resident questioned the closing of the DEI office.
“I didn’t want to come to speak today but being the only woman of color in most areas, I thought it would be important,” she said. “It’s huge, it’s important, it’s our politics. For some people, politics is just a game. The people behind me were laughing and making jokes. But to me, it’s my life, it’s my safety. It affects me more than anyone else in that room and someone has to speak on it.”
Another person disagreed.
“The media, the Democrats, the fake Republicans, want you to believe that a particular group of people are all suddenly not welcome in Ottawa County. This is a lie, it’s a lie that’s being used to spread division, to divide us, it’s a tool of Satan,” one person said.
“Thank you new commissioners for defending freedom at the last meeting,” another speaker said.
“Thank you for your courage to stand behind your campaign promises for the people who overwhelming voted for you,” another citizen said. “When I was in college studying history, I can remember writing a paper on Nazi Germany and feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness when confronted with the reality that 6 million Jewish people were murdered by their government. I often wondered how the German people could allow such atrocities. Today I no longer wonder. Yesterday’s persecution of the Jewish population is today’s persecution of anyone who goes against a new world order in a tragic repetition of history.”
Also among those who commented was Kristen Meghan Kelly, whose husband was appointed to replace the health officer. Nathaniel Kelly has been a vocal opponent of COVID-19 mitigation measures like social distancing and wearing masks.
“I come here today to request that the current deputy administrative health officer Marcia Mansaray be removed from her position,” Kristen Meghan Kelly said, “as outlined from an administrative hearing showcasing her statements and actions made during the pandemic showcase her incompetence to execute properly the duties of the office, official misconduct and habitual neglect of duty.”
HECKLERS INTERRUPT PRAYER
Even before the board got to its agenda, the meeting grew contentious. It started with an opening prayer greeted by a handful of hecklers.
“A couple of short scriptures, and then we’ll have a word of prayer,” Pastor Bart Spencer said.
At times, it sounded more like a Christian revival.
“The only reason we’re here is to bring glory to you. Father, I love you. Blessed now in Jesus’s name, amen,” Spencer prayed.
“Jesus would not say ‘amen’ to that prayer,” one person said.
“Just because you’re a white Christian conservative does not mean that everybody in this county, everybody in this room thinks the way that you do,” one resident said during public comment.
Spencer later told News 8 he thinks the heckling was “part of that divisiveness.”
The next county board meeting is set for Jan. 24.
— Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed Pastor Bart Spencer. We regret the error, which has been fixed.