Need to Know:
- The AG’s office found no violations of the Open Meetings Act by the newly elected Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.
- However, the office is recommending amendments to close loopholes to the Open Meetings Act that were exploited by some of the commissioners.
- Newly released emails show that Ottawa County commissioners tied to the extremist group “Ottawa Impact” had planned major changes to the county’s government before taking office.
- Emails also reveal that those members pressured other commissioners to stay out of the race, resign, or put off making decisions until Ottawa Impact members could be sworn in.
MICHIGAN—After an extremist takeover of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners and the immediate firing of top county officials, Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office stepped in to investigate whether any of the board’s decisions had run afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Act—which is designed to ensure transparency in governmental decisions.
Today, Nessel issued a letter to the Commission that found no violations of the state statute. Her office, however, admonished the secretive behavior of the board—and now she’s calling for amendments to the Open Meetings Act to close the loopholes some of Ottawa’s commissioners were able to slip through.
“Incoming board members clearly held secret meetings, outside of public view, prior to taking office in an effort to execute their will without interference,” Nessel said. “While this behavior does not violate the current standards set forth in the Open Meetings Act, it is the antithesis of transparency and good governance.”
Newly elected members of the commission were not legally required to abide by the Open Meetings Act during the period of time after being elected but before being sworn into office. Nessel wants lawmakers to amend the act to redefine “public official” to include newly elected officials prior to being sworn in.
Emails obtained by Progress Michigan show that Ottawa County commissioners tied to the extremist group “Ottawa Impact” had planned major changes to the county’s government before taking office, and then put pressure on the outgoing commissioners to pause decisions until the newcomers came aboard.
A conservative PAC called Ottawa Impact propped up about a dozen ultra-conservative candidates during the 2022 midterm elections, hoping to replace all of the existing GOP commissioners in Ottawa County.
The group successfully got eight of its candidates elected onto the 11-person commission:
- Gretchen Cosby, District 1
- Lucy Ebel, District 2
- Jacob Bonnema, District 4
- Joe Moss, District 5
- Rebekah Curran, District 7
- Sylvia Rhodea, District 8
- Roger Belknap, District 9
- Allison Miedema, District 11
With a large majority, at the commission’s first meeting on Jan. 3, Ottawa Impact members made multiple sudden changes immediately after being sworn in—including firing three of the county’s top officials.
First, county administrator John Shay was replaced by failed congressional candidate John Gibbs, a known election denier and conspiracy theorist who once operated a website that contended that women should not be allowed to vote.
The commission also fired the county’s top health officer, as well as the county attorney—who was replaced by David Kallman, a Lansing lawyer who attempted to decertify Michigan’s 2020 presidential election results and is now working with a group to erase LGBTQ+ people from Michigan’s schools.
The commission also eliminated the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department, and changed the county’s vision statement from “Where you Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.”
These changes prompted a backlash from Ottawa Country residents, leading Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office to announce an investigation into the commission’s actions for potentially violating the Open Meetings Act.
What do the Emails Reveal?
Progress Michigan filed a Freedom of Information Act request for email communications sent and received by Ottawa-Impact backed commissioners—both from before and after they officially took office.
Here’s what they showed:
- New commissioners worked together to make secret decisions before they took office.
In November, after the midterm elections, Sylvia Rhodea and Joe Moss requested a meeting with the county administrator John Shay, and another county employee. In an email to Shay, Rhodea explicitly stated that she and Moss wanted to meet about severance agreements for the DEI Director and Health officer.
These agreements were set up by the previous board of commissioners, who were seeking to “protect” both officials ahead of Ottawa Impact’s takeover of the board, according to reports from MLive.
Another email sent by former County Attorney Douglas Van Essen in late December showed that he was expecting to be fired, along with other county officials. He warned commissioners that “Ottawa County will immediately lose its standing across the State as one of the best run counties,” the emails show.
Commissioner Rebekah Curran has also publicly said that she suspected that six of the Ottawa Impact-backed commissioners had met in private before that first meeting, “off the record, to determine how to oust Shay.”
- Ottawa Impact officials asked the old commissioners to stand down.
In a Nov. 19 email, Moss—who had yet to be sworn in—asked the current commission to not decide how to spend the rest of the county’s federal American Rescue Plan dollars, and instead “pass the torch gracefully and allow the remaining ARPA funds be put to use in service of the voices and needs of the entire county under the leadership of the new county commissioner board in 2023.”
Democratic Commissioner Doug Zylstra, who won reelection in November, declined the request.
- Moss pressured a commissioner to withdraw his candidacy during the midterms.
On April 21, 2022, Moss sent an email to moderate Republican commissioner Roger Bergman that asked him to withdraw his candidacy for reelection in the midterms, and instead throw his support behind an Ottawa Impact candidate.
“Today is the last day to withdraw from the race,” Moss wrote. “If you align with the principles of American values and exceptionalism, parental rights, and individual freedoms, and are willing to stand up for them on behalf of the people, then it is my humble request that you would consider withdrawing and supporting the incoming candidate in your district for Commissioner. If you are unwilling to withdraw, I’d encourage you to publicly and specifically enumerate the principles by which you plan to govern.”
Bergman didn’t respond. He also didn’t withdraw from the race—and went on to win reelection.
Nessel’s Suggested Changes
While Nessel’s office found no violations of the Open Meetings Act, she has proposed adding amendments to ensure similar governmental decisions are done in public. Specifically, she wants lawmakers to redefine “public official” to include newly elected officials who haven’t been sworn in.
Nessel also urged a new amendment that would require a public body to publish an agenda for a public meeting at least 48 hours before it begins. She additionally wants to limit the ability for public officials to modify that agenda during the meeting—except only in exigent circumstances.
“I will also be evaluating whether other laws governing local units of government should be amended to require additional transparency, ethical conduct, fidelity to a government’s own rules and policies, and accountability to their citizens,” Nessel added.
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