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Residents sue Ottawa County board for Open Meetings Act claims


Four Ottawa County residents are suing the county board of commissioners.

The lawsuit was filed with the support of the group Progress Michigan. It’s the latest legal action over what happened at a January 3 meeting when a new slate of commissioners took office.

The county’s top health official had already filed a suit, saying she was illegally “demoted.” She now has a temporary restraining order in place against the county’s top administrator and lawyer to prevent her from being fired prior to a court hearing scheduled for later this month.

The latest lawsuit, filed by four county residents, claims board members violated the state’s Open Meetings Act prior to being sworn in on January 3.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office previously looked into the board’s actions and concluded the board technically didn’t violate the law.

“There appears to be no actionable violation of the Open Meetings Act, or of other relevant laws at this time,” Nessel announced in February.

The law requires that meetings of a public body must be held in public, and announced before hand. It says any time a majority of members of the body hold deliberations, those deliberations count as a meeting, and must be held in the public eye.

But Nessel said the law only applies to members of a public body after they’re sworn in.

Last year, a group of nine commissioners-elect gathered and began making choices about their future on the board. The nine people all had the support of the Ottawa Impact political action committee, a conservative group that was formed in opposition to emergency school mask mandates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the first public meeting for the new board members, they announced a series of shake-ups, including firing the county’s top administrator and top lawyer, appointing an “interim” health officer and eliminating the county’s office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Now, Progress Michigan says it’s obtained emails and other county documents showing how the nine board members coordinated their actions before the January 3 meeting. The group says the documents show board members were acting as a “de facto” board, even before being sworn in.

“We have a very good case to make based on the evidence that we’ve collected through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act], and through this sort of newer angle of looking at the Ottawa Impact commissioners and what they were doing prior to that January 3rd meeting,” said Sam Ingot, deputy director of Progress Michigan.

Part of the legal argument put forward in the complaint is that, in addition to constituting a majority of the future board, the Ottawa Impact-supported candidates also began issuing orders to county staff prior to being sworn in. And, despite some pushback, Progress Michigan said the documents it obtained show the orders were ultimately carried out.

One example cited in the lawsuit is the new board members’ decision to eliminate the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and fire its director, Robyn Afrik.

“To implement this decision prior to taking office, the Ottawa 9 directed County Administrator [John] Shay to prepare and execute a severance agreement for Afrik,” the lawsuit says, citing an email sent by incoming commissioner Sylvia Rhodea to Shay November 30. “On December 1, 2022, Shay indicated that the agreement had been executed.”

After being sworn in as commissioners, the nine new members of the board did follow through with their decision to eliminate the DEI office and fire Afrik.

The lawsuit was filed in Ottawa County Circuit court.

A county spokesperson said she forwarded a request for comment to current Ottawa County administrator John Gibbs and the county’s legal counsel. Michigan Radio has not yet received a response from them.

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.
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