OTTAWA COUNTY — The change of the tide started one year ago this month, when a thousand people showed up to an Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting to protest the institution of a county mandate that children in grades K-6 must wear masks in school.
Last week in the primary election, voters kicked out seven county commissioners in resounding victories for Ottawa Impact-picked candidates, the same group that organized the parent protest.
In total, nine Ottawa Impact-affiliated candidates have secured the Republican nomination to the 11-member board. Only two of those candidates face Democratic opponents in November, in two of the Holland area districts, District 1 and 2. (Ottawa Impact supported incumbent Kyle Terpstra's re-election in District 6, allowing him to run unchallenged. The group did not put up any candidates in District 3, represented by Doug Zylstra, a Democrat.)
The group ran a unified campaign with identical campaign literature, websites and signs for each candidate, supported by the Ottawa Impact PAC (political action committee), which spent about $48,500 on its candidates websites, billboards and digital ads.
Ottawa Impact said the current county commissioners had betrayed Ottawa County residents and the Republican Party by failing to challenge the school mask mandate imposed by the health department.
The campaign expanded to include a number of the hot topics of the national parental-rights movement: national cultural debates such as how schools and organizations should talk about race and equality, sex education and gender and sexuality issues.
According to statements on the group's website, Ottawa Impact objects to the involvement of Ottawa County in GARE, the Governmental Alliance on Race and Equity, saying the group is aligned with Democratic Party aims and "socialist" ideology.
The group's co-founders, Sylvia Rhodea and Joe Moss, who both won their commission races Tuesday and are unopposed in November, did not respond to several requests for comment on their election victories.
Current commissioners said the group seems to misunderstand the role county commissioners play in government. The job of a county commissioner is to oversee county finances. They do not legislate and have little authority over the inner workings of county departments, multiple commissioners told The Sentinel.
"They ran on ideological slogans and national issues," said District 1 commissioner Frank Garcia, a retired educator who lost his race Tuesday. "Either they are clueless as to what the role of the county commission is or they are deliberately misinforming the public as to what the role of county government is."
The mask mandate of August 2021 was ordered jointly by Ottawa County Department of Public Health and Kent County Health Department after the state health department declined to issue any orders for the upcoming school year, leaving mask rules up to county-level health authorities. The mask mandate was set with an expiration date: it would be in effect until a COVID-19 vaccine was available to under-12s or until the virus's community transmission subsides. It expired several months later after vaccines were approved for children.
Ottawa Impact said the county commission should end the mask mandate, pass a resolution calling for it to end, or fire the county health director over the issue.
A number of the county commissioners were not in favor of the mask mandate at the time, but they stood by their decision to support the health director in conversations with The Sentinel before and after the primary election. Legally, they said, they could not end the mandate if they wanted to. Others supported the mandate as one of the few tools they had to protect students from missing school, or worse, contracting COVID-19.
"The board has no authority to rescind an order that a health director made in a time of pandemic," Garcia said. "We were taken to court and the court said that yes, we did not have that authority. And then they wanted us to fire the health director. By firing a health director that was doing her job, we would likely be breaking the law and putting the county in legal jeopardy."
"I was an administrator and superintendent at Holland Public Schools," Garcia added. "For 30 years, my primary role was to protect students."
Commissioner Roger Bergman, the only Republican to survive his primary versus an Ottawa Impact candidate, was chair at the time of the mask mandate debate.
"We did get thousands of emails, literally thousands," Bergman said. "It was impossible to respond to them all."
As commissioners, they put their trust in the department heads of the county and the subject-matter experts to advise them about the best course of action during the pandemic, he said.
"I'm a retired shoeman," Bergman said. "I'm not a doctor. You rely on doctors and you rely on your health department and trust what they're doing. You have to hire the right people, and then you have to trust them."
Current chair Matt Fenske, who lost his seat Tuesday to Allison Miedema, said the board is losing decades of institutional knowledge in the turnover. He echoed Bergman and Garcia's points that much of the public misunderstands the role of the county commission in governing the county.
"Roger (Bergman) squeaked out a victory," said Fenske Wednesday. "But how effective is he going to be, even if hypothetically Daniela Garcia beats out Doug Zylstra, or even if Doug wins, either way it'll only be two against all the Ottawa Impact people." (Former state representative Daniela Garcia is running as a Republican in Zylstra's District 3, representing Holland. She is not affiliated with Ottawa Impact.)
The county commission hires the county administrator to run county government operations. The county administrator is the only person answerable to the county commission, Bergman noted.
The county commission holds the purse strings, but as Bergman described it, the county commission rarely votes "no" because it is usually spending money on basic services county government must provide: the county jail, courts, the register of deeds, property assessments, and the like.
"I feel for our new administrator John Shay, because there will be a lot of pressure on him to make this group understand that there are just some things you can't do in county government," Fenske said.
The group will have a guaranteed majority on the board, whether or not any Democrats win their commission races in November.
"I think it was a bit of a wakeup call for people who hadn't been paying attention to local elections," said Angela Maxwell, director of Ottawa Integrity PAC, which formed in September of 2021 in response to Ottawa Impact's influence on local politics. Ottawa Integrity PAC, which says it is nonpartisan in its picks, backed most of the commission's incumbents in the primary.
"Ottawa Impact was incredibly organized and very well funded and put together a really quality marketing campaign," Maxwell said.
"I have received a lot of calls after the election," Garcia said, "from people concerned about how did this happen to a board of commissioners that is so highly respected across the state as a model of good governance?"
Maxwell suspects low voter interest in and turnout in local elections is partly to blame.
"A lot of people aren't engaged in politics at all and certainly aren't engaged in primary elections," Maxwell observed. "And even most people who are engaged in primary elections are engaged in the state-level races, not the local ones.
"I definitely think there was a limited awareness of what was going on."
Bergman said he believes the movement that ousted most of his colleagues on the board is part of a national and statewide turn in the Republican Party toward a radical ideological wing, where moderates and "common-sense" conservatives, if they don't fall in step with the party line, are no longer welcome. The Democratic Party is seeing a similar turn, he observed.
"Today it is not the Republican Party. They really are the RINOs ("Republicans in name only")," Bergman said. "The Republican Party has always been a conservative party, but it's always been a moderate party. We've always been willing to work with people to get things done for the good of the community."
No more, Bergman said. He and his Republican colleagues on the board have been sidelined at local Republican party meetings, he said, and were formally censured by the party in July for allegedly encouraging "Democratic interference" in the Republican primary — encouraging Democrats to vote in the Republican primary to vote for them versus their Ottawa Impact opponents.
"I just hope that at some point in time that the Republican Party can come a little bit more to the middle so that we can get some things done," Fenske said. "Until then... I have no desire to be involved in the local party under the current leadership.
"On a positive note, I have five months left (as commissioner) and I'm going to do my darnedest to finish that out with my head held high. We've got the county on a good track. We're stable and economically strong. I would have liked to have had a couple more years, but it wasn't in the cards."
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Ottawa Impact rode school-mask outrage to topple Ottawa County board