OTTAWA COUNTY — In the aftermath of several controversial board meetings, beginning with a transition in commissioners in Ottawa County, local leaders are concerned about the economic future of the region.
After being sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 3, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners — including eight new commissioners backed by the far-right group Ottawa Impact during the election cycle — made a slew of changes.
More:Ottawa Impact campaigned on transparency. In their first meeting, they blindsided the community.
More:Public comment dominates Ottawa County board meeting
They 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 current successor who already had been approved by the state; replaced the county’s counsel and changed the county’s vision statement — costing taxpayers what’s expected to be in excess of $300,000.
All of those decisions were missing from the initial agenda posted for the meeting, denying community members the opportunity to speak on the issues, and instead were added, one-by-one, by several of the new commissioners in a meeting that seemed to be orchestrated ahead of time.
Public concern dominated the board’s next meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10, during which dozens of residents voiced either frustrations at the lack of transparency or support for the board’s actions. But not all concerned parties used that forum.
According to the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce, based in Holland and serving Zeeland, the “abrupt and unexpected” actions taken Jan. 3 were “concerning” and “will undoubtedly have an impact on our business community.”
The chamber pointed out that Ottawa County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the state over the past decade and was the fastest growing in 2021.
“Our favorable business climate played a role in this growth, which was driven in large part by Ottawa County being an attractive and welcoming community for all,” the organization wrote. “And we can’t afford for this to change.”
The chamber added “fair and transparent processes are fundamental to effective governance.”
“Our commitment is to educate our members on important policy issues, provide access to our elected officials and serve as an advocate for a business-friendly environment,” it wrote. “We will continue to work collaboratively with the elected officials who represent our area to create a community where all people feel welcome, and businesses thrive.”
While some organizations and leaders refused to comment directly on the recent actions of the board, statements were issued reaffirming their own commitment to transparency and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Lakeshore Advantage, for example, represents primary employers in Ottawa County and assists in obtaining resources for expansion and growth.
“Lakeshore Advantage is committed to ensuring current and future generations want to live and work in the (area),” the organization wrote in a statement. “The number one challenge reported by employers in this region is access to talent, and our research shows that employers who proactively invest in diversity, equity and inclusion strategies are more likely to grow.
“Our team will continue to be laser-focused on helping employers attract, retain and develop talent in this extremely tight labor market.”
Gloria Lara, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, formed in 1996, disagreed with the notion DEI, as a concept, is divisive — an argument made by several OI-backed commissioners and their supporters. Many of those supported by the program, Lara said, are white.
“I would say that they need to consider equity as an idea where all are included,” she said. “For example, the wealth gap. There’s a lot of low-income people in rural areas and a preponderance of them are white. They don’t have access to college because they lack the funds, so they work minimum wage jobs or join the military.
“You have to consider carefully how you are impacted, and focus on the equity of opportunities afforded to people.”
Lara believes the county’s lack of DEI, and other actions by the board, could keep new businesses from coming to town or expanding existing facilities.
“They might want to think twice … or three or four times,” she said.
It’s not just businesses that might avoid the area — it’s tourists and potential residents.
“This morning we just had our first cancellation at our Airbnb for the coming summer,” one resident told The Sentinel. “The family was a repeat guest and stated that they love the home and the area … but have been following the news and do not want to support an area as unwelcoming, radical and anti-diversity as Ottawa County.”
Carla Dunlap, a former Holland resident who recently returned to West Michigan from Arizona, said she was eager to return to a place “where sanity reigned” under Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic-era policies. Dunlap lives in Grand Rapids, but her first wish was to purchase a home in Holland.
“I am so happy that I did not buy property in Ottawa County,” she told The Sentinel. “Ottawa Impact … does not follow accepted rules of governing. Ottawa County has a very rocky road ahead, which will affect negatively for the future.”
But Mayor Nathan Bocks doesn’t want Holland residents to worry.
“We are firmly committed to doing things the right way,” he told The Sentinel on Wednesday. “We believe it’s not just what you do but how you do it, and not just what…
Read More: Local leaders fear Ottawa Impact shake-up could stymy business growth, tourism