Michigan AG reviewing shakeup in Ottawa County, possible Open Meetings Act violations

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect that recall petitions of county commissioners must garner 25 percent of persons who voted for governor in the most recent election in a commissioner’s jurisdiction, which is a much lower threshold than 25 percent of registered voters, which was previously reported. 

OTTAWA COUNTY — Did the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners violate state law on Tuesday? The Michigan Attorney General's Office intends to find out, announcing Wednesday it will reviewing a flurry of actions the board took during its first official meeting of 2023.

More:Ottawa Impact campaigned on transparency. In their first meeting, they blindsided the community.

More:Ottawa County Board abruptly fires administrator, hires former GOP candidate John Gibbs

After being sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 3, the board:

  • Fired administrator John Shay and replaced him with former GOP candidate John Gibbs without conducting a public interview

  • Eliminated the county’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office

  • Chose a new health director to replace the already-named successor to Lisa Stefanovsky, whose appointment had been approved by the state

  • Replaced the county’s counsel

  • Changed the county’s vision statement

The moves are expected to cost Ottawa County taxpayers at least $300,000 in severance requirements — and are possibly violations of Michigan's Open Meetings Act.

The board has eight new commissioners backed by Ottawa Impact, a Jenison-based political advocacy group formed in 2021 by parents and residents critical of state and local government’s response to containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The group opposes masking mandates, employee vaccine mandates, schools teaching critical race theory and the justification for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

More:Amid in-fighting, censures: What is the future for Ottawa County conservatism?

Ottawa Impact required its candidates to sign a pledge in order to earn the group’s endorsement. Although not legally binding, the contract demanded candidates pledge their votes to achieve the group’s goals.

“The Department of Attorney General is conducting an extensive review into the actions of the Ottawa County Commission’s (meeting) and will make our findings public upon completion,” a spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday.

Although the statement didn't outright accuse commissioners of violating Open Meetings Act, it's clear the new electees backed by Ottawa Impact met or communicated prior to being sworn into office to plan the decisions made Tuesday.

Government officials of public bodies are required to follow Michigan's Open Meetings Act — under which they must conduct public meetings if a quorum (the minimum number of voting members) of the board is present.

Commissioner Joe Moss takes his oath as the newly appointed Chairperson of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

“AG Dana Nessel is committed to defending the Open Meetings Act and recognizes the importance of ensuring that the people’s business allows residents to participate in their government and that local and county governments operate in accordance with the established law,” the statement read.

Ottawa Impact's electees, who ran on the promise of transparency, have thus far selected their board chair before being sworn in, added agenda items without warning during Tuesday's meeting, changed board rules at the last minute to clear the path for their agenda and even blindsided members of their own group.

Electee Rebekah Curran said she was “completely blindsided” by the decision to replacement the county administrator and thought Shay deserved a chance to work with the board.

“I came to you (Moss) and specifically asked if this was going to happen today and I was pretty much told no,” Curran said. “I’ve been completely blindsided by this this morning. While I think John Gibbs is a fantastic candidate and is very overqualified, I felt that it was prudent to at least give (Shay) the benefit of the doubt to prove if he was going to be able to work with the board or not.”

John Shay

The AG's Office didn't say how long its review would take. If the investigation finds the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act, it would likely nullify all decisions made at the Jan. 3 meeting.

The board would be able to re-enact the decisions in conformity with OMA's requirements and, if the reenactment were done correctly, it couldn't face additional OMA legal challenges.

Although Michigan's transparency laws are considered some of the weakest in the nation, there are criminal penalties for public officials who intentionally flout OMA requirements. The first time a public official intentionally violates OMA, he or she can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and punished by a maximum fine of $1,000.

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For a second offense within the same term of office, he or she can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $2,000 and/or jailed for a maximum of one year.

A public official who intentionally violates the act is also personally liable for actual and exemplary damages up to $500, plus court costs and attorney fees.

Tuesday's meeting sparked public support and outrage.

On Tuesday, the Ottawa County Clerk's Office confirmed it had received multiple inquires about how the recall petition process works.

However, Michigan law states any official serving a two-year term cannot be recalled in their first or last six months of their term. The earliest possible date for a recall petition would be July 3. If and when recall language is approved by the clerk's office, the petition must receive signatures from 25 percent of the number of persons who voted for governor in the most recent election in a targeted commissioner's jurisdiction.

At that point, a special election would be scheduled.

— Sentinel reporter Mitchell Boatman and WOOD TV-8 contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Michigan attorney general reviewing shakeup in Ottawa County