A county commissioners board in western Michigan that was taken over by a far-right slate of candidates will vote Tuesday on whether to drastically cut the health department’s budget, in the face of pleas by public health officials and community protests.
A group of ultraconservative candidates, motivated by resentment over COVID restrictions and mask mandates, swept to power in a election held in Ottawa County in Aug. 2022. Since taking office in January, the new commissioners affiliated with “Ottawa Impact” have used their majority to fire top county officials, install a former Trump administration official and MAGA loyalist as county administrator, shutter the county’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office, and change the county motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.”
But their particular target has been the public health department, apparently in retaliation for COVID mandates.
The embattled public health officer, Adeline Hambley, who the Ottawa Impact commissioners have been attempting to remove since they took office in January, said the proposed new budget would gut the department.
“Our most vulnerable and our most marginalized in the community are the ones to pay the cost,” Hambley told The Daily Beast, citing programs for low-income people, children and migrants that she says the department will be forced to shutter.
“The last few weeks, we’re just fighting and battling to try and grasp these funds back for these mandated services, or services specifically for marginalized people, like getting food and health care,” Hambley said.
John Gibbs, the county administrator, initially proposed an annual budget of $2.5 million, cutting 63 percent of funding from the department, including “discontinuing all COVID-related grants.” Gibbs said the cuts were “returning to pre-COVID budget levels.” The health department pushed back, saying the budget did not account for chronic underfunding, and estimated they would be forced to close down within weeks.
“The significant and retaliatory cuts requested on behalf of Commissioner Moss are an attempt to achieve political victory over COVID-19 at the expense of Ottawa County citizens,” Hambley wrote in a revised budget document, according to MLive. “These cuts do not save taxpayers money but serve to reduce services that the county is required to provide to protect the health and safety of the community.”
Following a public hearing on Sept. 12, the board revised the budget up to $4.3 million, still lower than the $6.4 million Hambley proposed in May. The final vote on the budget will be held on Tuesday.
Kathleen O’Brien, a local activist mobilizing against the proposed cuts with the group Progressive Lakeshore, told The Daily Beast the board’s actions amount to “bad governance and petty retribution.”
“They are exacting political revenge against our public health director by cutting millions in funding to core services that support our most vulnerable citizens,” O’Brien said. “Ottawa Impact is tearing at the fiber of our community over their trifling grudges. Revenge politics is no way to govern.”
A new brand of conservatives
Ottawa County, home to 300,000 people and a beloved annual tulip festival, is the fastest growing county in the state. Settled by mostly Dutch immigrants, it has historically leaned conservative. (The last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the county was 1864.) Its county commissioner’s board has traditionally been governed by a stable of long-serving traditional Republican candidates.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic, the politics of the county have been transformed, first by local anti-mask and anti-lockdown activists, and then by a slate of ultra-conservative candidates for the board of commissioners, who took the majority of seats in an Aug. 2022 election.
Six of the new commissioners were all backed by a group called Ottawa Impact (OI). They ran on an almost identical platform, advocating “medical freedom,” “parental rights”, and “childhood innocence.” (“A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl,” their websites read. “Children are not racist or sexual.”)
Ottawa Impact emerged from the fractious local politics of the pandemic, founded by two local activists Joe Moss and Sylvia Rhodea.
Moss, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, seems to have been motivated to organize the group by his anger over COVID restrictions at the local school.
Libertas Christian School, a private religious school where Moss is a director and treasurer, was shut down by the local health authority in Oct. 2020 for allegedly failing to follow coronavirus guidelines or cooperate with contact tracing. The school sued Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan attorney general, and the then director of the Department of Health and Human Services, saying the “unreasonable” mask mandates were “violating the constitutional rights of Libertas, its students, their families, and their teachers through a pattern of threats and intimidation.” A federal judge ultimately ruled against the school.
Moss founded Ottawa Impact the following year with local parent and anti-vaccine activist Rhodea. They launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against the county’s Department of Public Health, and the previous board commissioners, over mask mandates in schools.
As president of Ottawa Impact, Moss vetted potential candidates for their political views, requiring them to sign a contract to uphold conservative and religious values, and funding their campaigns through two political PACs, according to reporting from Wood TV8. Collectively, the PACs raised $150,000, an unprecedented amount for board of commissioner campaigns in the county.
Eight Ottawa Impact-backed candidates won the election, removing seven Republican incumbents from their positions, including Matt Fenske, the previous board chair. Fenske told Wood TV8 he was taken by surprise by the group’s resounding success.
“He is their leader,” Fenske said of Moss. “I call him ‘God.’ Because what he says, people follow.”
At their first meeting on Jan. 3, the new Ottawa Impact commissioners used their majority to make a series of sweeping and unannounced changes that shocked many in the local community.
They fired the county administrator John Shay and replaced him with John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Known for his far-right views, Gibbs has boosted unfounded claims that the 2022 election was “stolen,” and once tweeted a conspiracy theory that John Podesta took part in a satanic ritual.) Gibbs ran a failed congressional campaign in Michigan’s 3rd district, losing to Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten in 2022.
They also dissolved the county’s DEI office, and changed the county motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.” The Ottawa Impact-authored resolution to change the motto claimed the words “where you belong” have “been used to promote the divisive, Marxist ideology of the Race Equity movement.”
Finally, they fired the county’s previous legal counsel and replaced them with Kallman Legal Group, where two of the main attorneys are relatives of Moss’ business partner, Joel Kallman. (Moss insisted there was “no conflict of interest”.)
The moves were met with effusive praise by some supporters in the audience. Jeff King, a Jamestown resident, thanked the commissioners for “returning parental rights to the parents and not the health department.”
“We will not be demonized for our faith in God and his word. Jesus is lord of Ottawa County!” King said.
Gutting the Health Department
It quickly became clear that the commissioners sights were set on upending leadership of the health department. In the same meeting, they attempted to fire Hambley and replace her with Nathaniel Kelly, a safety manager at a local HVAC company.
Kelly is the husband of Kristen Meghan Kelly, a “health freedom advocate” whose campaigns against mask mandates were covered by The Daily Beast in 2021. (Kelly sued The Daily Beast for defamation following the publication of the article. The Daily Beast won a motion to dismiss the case.)
In her office at the health department, Marcia Mansaray, the Deputy Health Officer, watched the meeting in shock and horror.
“It felt violent. And I was just weeping by the end of it,” Mansaray told The Daily Beast. “The people that were in that building were all walking around either weeping, or like they were just in shock. I couldn’t believe that had happened. We’d never had a public meeting of elected officials that didn’t have agenda items on the agenda, that was so dramatic. No person, no resident was able to give a voice to what happened. And people who were loved just had to walk away. It was terrible.”
Doug Zylstra, the only Democrat on the board of commissioners, says he knew immediately the board did not have the power to remove Hambley.
“You can’t just fire a health officer. It’s not a political position. It’s a statutory position,” Zylstra told The Daily Beast.
In February, Hambley filed a lawsuit against the Ottawa Impact board members, claiming she had been illegally demoted to “interim health officer” and that the board planned to fire her without “just cause.” In April, a Muskegon County judge granted Hambley an injunction against the board, stating, “the public is harmed when the law is not followed in terminating a health director."
Sarah Riley Howard, Hambley’s attorney, said the trial court had ruled that Hambley is the appointed officer. There will be another hearing in the court of appeals on Oct. 11.
Zylstra, who has been a commissioner since 2019, said that before Ottawa Impact candidates swept to power the atmosphere had always been collegial, even as the only Democrat.
“You shook everyone’s hand when you came to the meeting,” he said. Now he says, the politics have become adversarial. “They see politics as a confrontation between one world and another world. Which to me doesn’t make sense. We’re living in the same world.”
It has not been easy to work with the new commissioners, Zylstra says, as they shut out anyone who isn’t part of their group from the political process.
“They have all the leadership positions. They’re all occupied by basically those six and nobody else. None of the communication, none of the leadership, none of the information gets shared beyond those six commissioners,” he says.
A lack of transparency
The board has also proved challenging for reporters attempting to cover its actions. Moss did not respond to a request for comment for this story and neither did John Gibbs, the county administrator. Not one of the Ottawa-Impact affiliated candidates responded.
Sarah Leach, the executive editor of the Holland Sentinel told The Daily Beast it’s been a constant struggle to report on the board.
“The Ottawa Impact officials and their appointees refuse to engage in historically accepted practices of engaging with the public and the media,” Leach said. “This leads to a complete lack of transparency at the county level, forcing journalists and citizens to file an unprecedented number of Freedom of Information Act requests that have now forced up legal costs, according to Ottawa Impact's own leadership.”
Leach’s reporting revealed that commissioner Jacob Bonnema, who originally ran with Ottawa Impact but split with the group in March over concerns about transparency, filed a HR complaint detailing an alleged “threatening outburst” from Gibbs at a board meeting in March.
Leach filed a FOIA request for a copy of the complaint.
The board’s corporate counsel told Leach it would cost $5,071.10 and take 36 weeks to complete her request, fees almost 31 times higher than those allowed under state law. The Sentinel appealed and finally obtained a copy of the complaint.
In his complaint, Bonnema said the “threatening” incident stemmed from Gibbs’ refusal to answer his questions about the appointment of Nathaniel Kelly as public health officer. Bonnema said Gibbs had refused to provide information or updates, and so he approached Gibbs prior to a meeting on March 14 and asked him again but was told by Gibbs to “get out of my face.”
“If Gibbs is willing to speak to commissioners in this way, then he is very likely to treat the employees and citizens of Ottawa County in similar fashion," Bonnema wrote in his complaint to HR.
Marcie Ver Beek, Director of HR for Ottawa County, determined that Bonnema’s complaint was “unfounded” and the evidence gathered during the investigation “did not substantiate the claim of harassment.”
The Ottawa County Republican Party was quick to censure Bonnema when news of his complaint became public. In a Jun. 20 resolution, the OCRP described his complaint as “defamatory” and “frivolous.” They accused Bonnema of “eroding the public trust in the Republican-led Board of Commissioners and the Republican Party,” through his “frequent negative statements about fellow Republicans to local and national media.” He was banned from voting in the next six OCRP committee meetings.
Ottawa Impact’s aversion to transparency is also costing the board a lot of money. In July, the finance committee revealed it was paying Kallman Legal Group $11,600 a month. They voted to reallocate $110,000 from the general fund to the corporate council budget to continue paying the firm, Fox 17 reported.
These high expenses come as the board will vote on cutting the health department’s budget—an irony not lost on some local residents.
Melanie Scholten, a local resident who opposes the cuts, told The Daily Beast, “I see people tossing lots of percentages and numbers around but what gets me... is that there is no financial crisis that warrants cuts.”
Scholten gave public comment at a board meeting on Sept. 19, where she voiced her frustrations.
“We are tired of the smoke and mirrors. We are tired of the dangerous rhetoric meant to divide us and make us enemies,” she told the Ottawa Impact commissioners. “Everything you say is now tainted with a high degree of suspicion. It's not a good feeling.”
Local organizers are planning to rally in support of the health department on Tuesday, Kim Nagy, a founder member of the Ottawa Integrity PAC, told The Daily Beast. That PAC was founded to resist the efforts of Ottawa Impact, and mobilize to run candidates against them at the next election. Nagy says one unintended consequence of Ottawa Impact’s actions has been to mobilize an active opposition where once there was none, something she believes has lessons for other communities in the country.
“Ottawa County is an absolute microcosm of the country. Ottawa Impact has brought all of the national level culture wars,” Nagy says. “We’re gobsmacked. I think you have this wide swathe of the country that is just going, ‘What’s happening?’ And it takes a while to understand that you have to stand up. You can’t say, ‘I hate politics.’ It’s too important right now. We are literally talking about our democracy.”