Far-right group leveraged mask mandates to take control of a county government - TAI News
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For the past two years, members of an ultra-conservative far-right group called Ottawa Impact have held the majority on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.

The Ottawa Impact commissioners have made drastic changes to vital operations such as public health and department staffing that have been motivated more by political ideology than a need to improve county services.

Ottawa Impact was founded in 2021 as a political advocacy group for parents and residents who were critical of school mask mandates, which the state and local government had implemented to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The group decided to run a targeted campaign to get its members elected to the board of commissioners in the 2022 election.

In the traditionally GOP stronghold of Ottawa County, eight of the nine Ottawa Impact members running to serve on the 11-member board defeated their incumbent moderate Republican opponents. Joe Moss and Sylvia Rhodea, who founded Ottawa Impact, were chosen to serve as the commission’s chair and vice chair. Moss and Rhodea did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

Doug Zylstra, an incumbent and one of the few Democrats to ever be elected to the county’s board of commissioners, was reelected. He told the Michigan Independent that the direction the Ottawa Impact majority intended to take the board was clear from its first meeting in January 2023.

Shortly after the officers were sworn in, they quickly fired the county administrator and replaced him with John Gibbs, a former congressional candidate who had previously worked for former President Donald Trump’s administration. The board then disbanded the county’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and fired all of its employees. Ottawa Impact members replaced the county motto “Where You Belong” — which they claimed had been used to promote “divisive, Marxist ideology” — with “Where Freedom Rings.”

In the months that followed, the right-wing majority passed a resolution declaring Ottawa County a “constitutional county” and forbidding the use of any funds or resources to enforce any regulation that “restricts the rights of any Law-abiding citizen affirmed by the United States Constitution.” They passed another resolution that would ban the use of staff or funding for “activities, programs, events, content, or institutions which support, normalize, or encourage the sexualization of children and youth.”

The mostly symbolic resolutions don’t provide examples of regulations that restrict a person’s constitutional rights or activities that sexualize children. The latter resolution resulted in members of the public accusing the board of homophobia, given that it was proposed soon after county officials attended two local LGBTQ Pride festivals to offer vaccinations and information about sexually transmitted diseases to attendees.

The county has continued to provide basic local government services, like voter information and parking enforcement. But Zylstra, who was first elected commissioner in 2018, said there are areas in which the board has overstepped its usual boundaries.

“I think there’s been some aspects, especially in public health, that have been negatively affected by some of our actions,” Zylstra said.

Most recently, Ottawa County Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley and the board of commissioners reached an agreement in February to settle a lawsuit that Hambley had filed in February 2023. Hambley alleged in the lawsuit that the board violated state law when it attempted to demote her to an interim position and replace her with another pick.

In the midst of the yearlong legal battle, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners passed a budget that cut the health department’s education program funding nearly in half. One result was the loss of the Ottawa Food Program coordinator, whose job was to organize food distribution among the local nonprofits and organizations that help feed low-income families. 

The program has been in limbo since November despite continued funding requests from health officials and the public.

“If we keep hearing about delays or excuses, the only logical conclusion we can draw is that you just don’t care,” Marla Walters, a Holland Township resident, told the commission at its Feb. 13 meeting.

In addition to Hambley’s lawsuit, the board of commissioners has been named in lawsuits filed by county residents over age and religious discrimination. Ottawa Impact commissioner Lucy Ebel is facing a recall election in May spearheaded by area residents who feel she is “too extreme.”

There have been signs of division among the ranks of Ottawa Impact and its allies. 

Last March, commissioners Rebekah Curran and Jacob Bonnema split with the group, citing concerns about Ottawa Impact’s lack of transparency in its decision making, according to MLive.

The board fired Gibbs from his position as county administrator last month — a year into his tenure — in a nearly unanimous vote. Zylstra, who said the decision was very sudden, was the lone no vote. The board said it had decided to suspend his employment the week before following alleged county staff complaints about Gibbs’ behavior. According to MLive, Gibbs’ lawyer claimed that the firing had been in “retaliation for Mr. Gibbs’ efforts to protect the county” and said in a letter that Gibbs had been harassed and defamed for “rightfully criticizing the performance of the county’s corporation counsel in furtherance of the public interest.” Moss had been responsible for hiring the county’s legal counsel.

Zylstra, who is running for reelection this year, said he hopes the commission can pivot to priorities that need their attention. He said he thinks they need to take a step back from issues dealing with public health and work on issues such as increasing housing opportunities for county residents instead.

“I think that we can actually do a lot of good if we really want to,” Zylstra said.

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The Michigan Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.