WEST OLIVE — A recently elected slate of Ottawa County commissioners used their first day at the dais to oust the county administrator and public health director, appoint a conservative legal firm as its general counsel, and eliminate the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion department.
The “Ottawa Impact” slate of eight commissioners, backed by a far-right political action committee who now control a large majority of the county board, were sworn into office today during their first meeting since the Nov. 8 election.
While their plans to eliminate the county DEI office were well known, replacing several top officials with new appointees at their first meeting blindsided fellow commissioners and the officials themselves. The resolutions to do so were added during the meeting and did not appear on a previously published meeting agenda.
Those appointments include John Gibbs, a former Republican congressional candidate, to replace Administrator John Shay.
Shay said in an interview that he was unaware he would be replaced at today’s meeting.
“At the end of the day, the Board of Commissioners has the right to choose an administrator they’re comfortable with, and that’s what they’ve chosen to do,” Shay, the previous longtime city manager of Ludington, told MiBiz after the meeting. Shay left the meeting after the vote, and Gibbs spent the rest of the meeting sitting before the county commissioners. “I respect that decision.”
As well, the board newcomers spent more than an hour debating the office of corporation counsel, which serves as the county’s in-house attorney. The Ottawa Impact slate voted to name Kallman Legal Group PLLC, which has represented clients in high-profile cases involving COVID-19 restrictions and religious liberties, as corporate counsel. The group will replace Doug Van Essen, who has represented the county for decades and was in the midst of helping with the transition of finding a new general counsel.
The move also came as a surprise to Shay and Van Essen.
“You can’t just transition, in one day, the county’s corporate legal needs, so I would have never walked away from the job after 40 years of serving Ottawa County without a replacement,” Van Essen said during the meeting. “I understand you want to replace my services, but we can’t just drop that ball. Too many people are relying on it in the county.”
The Ottawa Impact slate, backed by a well-funded political action committee and numerous supporters at today’s meeting, has raised concerns by some in the community about the county’s ability to advance economic development based on the group’s opposition to government-backed DEI initiatives, as MiBiz recently reported.
Incumbent commissioners Doug Zylstra, a Democrat, and Republican Roger Bergman said Ottawa Impact’s first meeting contradicts their pledges of transparency.
“We were not included in that information at all about the additional motions,” Bergman told MiBiz about the late additions to the agenda. “We had an idea that they certainly wanted to replace our attorney, but we certainly did not think that they were going to replace John Shay. And for them to replace the health department director with their own pick, that was a bit over the top and also a surprise for me.”
“One of the things they talked about was transparency but they haven’t been transparent at all,” Bergman added. “For sure they put these ideas together as a group or at least in smaller groups before the (meeting) that happened today.”
Ottawa Impact-backed commissioner Rebekah Curran said during the meeting that she also felt “completely blindsided” by Shay’s abrupt firing, even though she supports replacing him with Gibbs. She attempted to keep Shay on for a short period of time to help with the transition, but her proposed amendment failed.
The new Ottawa County Board Chair, Joe Moss, did not respond to a request to comment after the meeting.
“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,” Commissioner Sylvia Rhodea said during the board meeting. “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.”
With the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, Gibbs beat former U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer in this year’s Republican primary to represent Michigan’s third district, which spans Grand Rapids to the lakeshore. Gibbs then lost the general election to U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Rapids, by nearly 13 points, or about 44,000 votes.
Bergman said he has already heard from numerous constituents after today’s meeting.
“I’ve had so many phone calls already,” Bergman said. “People are just shocked, they are in shock. And I realize that (the new commissioners) had their supporters at the meeting today, but it’s just a sad day in Ottawa County.”
Managing Editor Andy Balaskovitz contributed reporting to this story.