After Ottawa Co. board dismantled the DEI dept., residents worry about impacted communities

By: - January 20, 2023 5:16 am

Ottawa County government complex | Allison R. Donahue

Updated, 10:07 a.m., 1/20/23

Kate Colburn, the executive director of Out on the Lakeshore, a Holland-based Pride center, said she’s afraid of what it might mean for the community’s marginalized groups after the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners this month axed the county’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Department.

DEI, at any level of government, affects our members significantly through access to programming and hiring policies. It also just adds a feeling of inclusion and belonging, and right now that’s the biggest effect that the dissolution of this office is causing,” Colburn said. “Right now, in the immediate, the response is just a feeling of fear and feeling like this is no longer a place that we, LGBTQ+ folks, are seen, heard and valued.”

After a slate of far-right Republicans won the majority of seats on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners in November, their first official actions in the new year were shocking to many community members.

At the first meeting of the year, the board voted to fire the county’s top health officer and hire Nathaniel Kelly, an anti-masker; eliminate its DEI Department; fire the county administrator John Shay and appoint John Gibbs, who lost Nov. 8 in the 3rd Congressional District to Democrat U.S. Rep Hillary Scholten; and change the county motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.”

Equity and inclusion is a nonpartisan issue. This isn’t partisan politics, nor should it be,” Colburn said. “Belonging should be apolitical and definitely nonpartisan. But we’re seeing it politicized in a way that’s really uncomfortable and frightening.”

Nathaniel Kelly

State law requires Ottawa County to submit evidence of Kelly’s qualifications in order to get approved by the state. However, more than two weeks after the announcement to hire Kelly, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said evidence of Kelly’s qualifications still have not been submitted. 

Kelly is the safety manager for the Pluene Service Company in Grand Rapids, a heating ventilation and air conditioning business. Commissioners on Jan. 3 said Kelly has a master’s degrees of science in public health and occupational health from Columbia Southern University, an online university based in Alabama.

The seven far-right commissioners who ran under the Ottawa Impact banner successfully ousted seven GOP incumbents on the West Michigan board. 

Roger Bergman, the lone Republican incumbent who wasn’t replaced by a member of Ottawa Impact, said the previous board “pretty much knew” that the DEI department would be cut. Last month, members approved a three-month severance package for DEI Director Robyn Afrik in preparation of her getting fired by the incoming board.

“That was one of their goals they spoke of even before coming into office. It was one of their main goals, so it wasn’t a surprise,” Bergman said. “We’ve been working hard to ensure that everyone feels welcomed. But considering how the public views Ottawa County, it has certainly been one of our goals to show that we are a welcoming community for anyone from any background.”

Sylvia Rhodea, the commission vice chair and co-founder of Ottawa Impact, said during the second board meeting this year that the DEI Department and the county’s previous motto were “divisive.”

“There isn’t a racial divide in our county,” she said. “There is an ideological divide in our country.”

At the Jan. 3 meeting, Rhodes said that the “Where you belong” motto was “used to establish the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department on the premise that county resident characteristics of being 90% white and largely conservative were problematic for businesses.”

Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting, Jan. 3, 2023 | Screenshot

Bergman said he’s received close to 1,000 emails within days after the Board’s first meeting, many of which were residents sharing their concerns. 

“According to about 80% of my emails that I’ve gotten, I would say that the public is very disgusted as to what happened. They’re unhappy and many of them said right out that this shows that we are unwelcoming to anyone other than someone that is a white Christian,” Bergman said.

In addition to the emails, dozens of residents, both for and against the changes made by the new members, showed up to last week’s board meeting to give public comment. 

Larry Jackson, a Black Holland resident who unsuccessfully ran as the Democratic nominee for the 86th Michigan House District in the Nov. 8 election and now serves as the treasurer for the Ottawa County Democratic Party, said the board has sent the message that “we aren’t welcome here.”

“Ottawa County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, and it’s not growing less diverse. It’s growing more diverse,” Jackson said, adding that he is worried about how this will impact the diverse workforce in the county, especially as new businesses plan to move in. 

“LG [Corporation] is building a new facility here with … new employees. We have to think about who the employee base [is] and what it looks like. All the people that are working on the floors in manufacturing, that’s going to be a diverse group of people,” he said. 

Ottawa County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, and it's not growing less diverse. It's growing more diverse.

– Holland resident and Ottawa County Democratic Party Treasurer Larry Jackson

Women of Color Give, a Holland-based philanthropic collective for women from diverse cultural backgrounds, declined to comment on the actions of the board. 

Gloria Lara, the executive director of Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, also declined to comment directly on the Ottawa Board of Commissioners, but offered that “boards at all levels should follow excellent governance processes to make certain that they are following their bylaws and to ensure that they are transparent to whoever their public is.”

Ottawa County is one of the most consistently Republican counties in Michigan. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won the lakeshore county was in 1864 in the election between incumbent President Abraham Lincoln and Democratic opponent George B. McClellan. In 2020, President Joe Biden had the best performance of any Democratic presidential candidate in Ottawa County since 1964, winning about 38% of the vote.

Bergman said that he also fears this abrupt change will have a negative impact on the diverse workforce in Ottawa County and will discourage employees and employers from moving to the county.

Lakeshore Advantage, a nonprofit economic development organization based in Zeeland, said “the No. 1 challenge reported by employers in this region is access to talent.”

“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,” said Grace Maiullo, a Lakeshore Advantage spokesperson.

Grand Valley State University | Allison R. Donahue

Grand Valley State University (GVSU), the only public university in Ottawa County, could also be impacted by the board’s actions. For this current school year, GVSU has 21,648 enrolled students, more than 3,000 employees and a Fiscal Year 2023 general fund budget of nearly $353 million.

“I would wager that there are students who may be looking at Grand Valley and researching Allendale and researching the county, and they may reconsider attending GVSU or applying to GVSU unfortunately,” said Chasity Bailey-Fakhoury, a faculty facilitator at GVSU’s Inclusion and Equity Institute and an associate professor in the College of Education and Community Innovation.

Bailey-Fakhoury said that the Board’s decision to cut the DEI department will also likely make it more difficult for GVSU students, especially those from diverse backgrounds, to find jobs in the surrounding community. 

“The decisions that were made in our county will have a ripple effect beyond the county, the supervisors and the elected officials there. It will have a negative ripple effect for businesses and institutions that are situated within the county and beyond,” Bailey-Fakhoury said. “Because it’s not only the county. Now folks are looking at West Michigan writ large and questioning our commitment to being a place of belonging, inclusion and advancing equity.”

It will be another two years before voters will have a chance to change the makeup of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, although many residents have brought up the possibility of recalling some board members.

Grand Valley State University | Susan J. Demas

Bergman said he hopes the new members will take into consideration the community’s reaction to the changes. 

Jackson and other Ottawa County activists are building a countywide coalition, the Unifying Coalition of Ottawa County (UCOC), to help “good faith” candidates, regardless of party, run in 2024 to replace the Ottawa Impact commissioners. Vote Common Good-West Michigan, a nonpartisan nonprofit that has been active since 2020, and Ottawa Integrity, a nonpartisan PAC founded in early 2022 in response to the actions of Ottawa Impact, are the two organizations behind the new coalition.

“The actions of the new Ottawa Impact-backed majority on the County Board have galvanized a sense of urgency and fresh energy throughout Ottawa County,” said Kim Nagy, the executive director of Ottawa Integrity. “UCOC is our two organizations’ swift, collaborative response to the call for more coordination and synergy among leaders and groups that stand in opposition to Ottawa Impact.”

A recall effort is possible after six months in office, making July 3 the earliest date for a recall effort to be introduced. A recall petition must receive signatures from at least 25% of the number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election. 

In the meantime, Colburn said she is concerned about marginalized communities getting pushed further into the margins in the meantime. 

Does this mean that folks who don’t believe that we should be here will be given more of a voice, and therefore there will be a ripple effect within the community? It’s hard to say,” Colburn said. “But that fear is definitely there and it’s real.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the 2024 organizing efforts of the nonpartisan Unifying Coalition of Ottawa County (UCOC).

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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