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Some Ottawa County commissioners "appalled" and "blindsided" by sudden changes in administration

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Ottawa County commissioners unexpectedly appointed John Gibbs as the new county administrator at a meeting on Tuesday.

Government in Ottawa County could look dramatically different after a new slate of commissioners made big changes at their first public meeting on Tuesday.

Among the changes:

  • Letting go the county administrator and in his place hiring John Gibbs, a former staffer in the administration of Donald Trump who lost a bid for Congress in November.
  • Terminating the county’s health officer and signaling they intended to hire a new health officer who’s opposed school mask mandates.
  • Hiring a new legal counsel for the county.
  • Eliminating the county’s department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. 
  • Changing the county vision statement from “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings”

The changes were pushed by a group of nine new commissioners elected with the support of Ottawa Impact, a political action group that formed in opposition to mask mandates in schools, and said its members supported the “Judeo-Christian heritage" of the U.S.

New board, new rules

None of the big changes were on the public agenda that was published prior to the start of the public meeting. Instead, the new commissioners first approved a new set of rules, then amended the agenda to make the changes. The rule changes themselves were controversial, because they were not debated prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“I feel there are several items on there that are illegal,” said Commissioner Roger Bergman, who opposed the rule changes.

Bergman said he’d only seen the rule changes a week before, when they were inserted into the meeting agenda without debate.

“When I think of the fact that these members of the new board talked about transparency before, this is an example of your transparency,” Bergman said.

“You’re welcome for the one-week notice,” said Joe Moss, who co-founded Ottawa Impact and now serves as chair of the board.

The rules ultimately passed, and commissioners began proposing amendments to the meeting agenda, which included replacing a number of key staff, eliminating the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and changing the vision statement.

Commissioner Sylvia Rhodea, another co-founder of Ottawa Impact, read aloud the resolution to change the county’s vision statement. The resolution said the previous vision statement, “Where you belong” was used to “promote the divisive Marxist ideology of the race equity movement.”

The new vision statement will be “Where freedom rings.”

Gibbs takes the seat

Rhodea also proposed the motion that led to the hiring of John Gibbs, a former Trump administration staffer who repeated untrue claims about the 2020 election and has a history of controversial statements posted online.

“Our voters spoke very clearly about wanting a change in direction in our county. And county leadership starts at the top with a county administrator,” Rhodea said in support of removing John Shay, the previous administrator.

“And so 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.”

Commissioner Bergman said he opposed the change, not because he opposed Gibbs, but because the previous administrator had been hired after a lengthy public process, and had done nothing to deserve being let go.

“I am appalled that you all would do what you’re doing today,” Bergman said. “I’m appalled.”

Another commissioner, who was part of the group supported by Ottawa Impact, said she was also troubled by how the commissioners handled the situation.

“I specifically asked if this was going to happen today, and I was pretty much told no,” said Rebekah Curran. “So I’ve been completely blindsided by this this morning.”

But the vote to hire Gibbs went ahead, and Gibbs was installed effective immediately.

“Thank you to everyone for your prayers for the board and for Ottawa County,” Gibbs said, as he sat down to assume the role of the new county administrator. “Those are being answered as we speak, will continue to be answered.”

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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