91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

AG calls Ottawa County commissioner's actions "egregious" but not illegal

wood gavel in front of book
Adobe Stock

A new group of commissioners in Ottawa County didn’t technically violate the law when they made a number of surprise, sweeping changes to county policy at their first meeting in January.

But, Attorney General Dana Nessel said Thursday the sudden changes were a “blatant violation of public trust.” And she said she'll propose amending the state's laws to prevent it from happening again.

Nine new members of the Ottawa County commission were elected last year with the support of Ottawa Impact PAC, a group that began in opposition to mask mandates in schools, and asked candidates to sign a contract saying they “recognize our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage” and opposed the county’s work on promoting racial equity.

At their first public meeting, the members voted to fire the county’s top administrator and hire John Gibbs, a failed Congressional candidate who’d worked in Donald Trump’s administration. They also took actions to replace the county’s top attorney and top health official and voted to change the county’s motto from “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings.”

None of the actions had been on the public meeting agenda posted before the start of the meeting.

After residents raised concerns, Nessel announced her office would look into whether any of the steps had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The act requires that any time a majority of members of a public body meet to discuss an issue, the meeting must be held in public. Nessel said Thursday it was clear a majority of board members had met and made decisions on what actions they would take, but those meetings happened before any of the members had been sworn in.

“There appears to be no actionable violation of the Open Meetings Act, or of other relevant laws at this time,” Nessel announced Thursday during a virtual press conference.

“Obviously the way in which this board went about making its decisions, I mean if it’s not illegal, because of a technicality, certainly I think many of us find it to be nefarious in nature and unethical," Nessel said.

That’s why Nessel says her office will propose amendments to the state’s open meetings act so that it would cover deliberations or decisions that officials take after being elected, but before being sworn in.

“I don’t know that that’s too much of a burden to put on people when they’ve already made the effort to run for these offices and people have voted for them,” Nessel said.

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act laws, which allows citizens to request documents or communications between some public officials, could also be expanded to cover elected officials before they’re sworn in. The state Legislature would have to approve the legal changes. So far, no draft legislation has been published.

Ottawa County board members didn't address the attorney general's comments during a meeting on Thursday. A spokesperson for the county wasn't available for comment.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.