MSU student Timberlyn Mazeikis speaks at the Ottawa County Commission meeting, May 23, 2023 | Screenshot
Just a day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law another package of gun safety reforms, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners declared itself a “constitutional county” and “strongly” encouraged its sheriff and prosecutor not to enforce laws “contrary to the rights protected by the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Michigan.”
While the resolution, which was passed the GOP-controlled body by a 9-1 vote, does not specify what laws would fall into that definition, it resolves to protect individual freedoms, including “freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, the right to keep and bear arms, and the right to due process,” further saying it will not authorize funds or resources for “enforcing any statute, law, rule, order or regulation” that restricts those rights.
The largely symbolic resolution was led by Board Chair Joe Moss and the far-right Ottawa Impact movement, which took control of the West Michigan board in January after successfully ousting seven GOP incumbents they criticized for not being sufficiently right-wing.
It also follows a similarly worded resolution passed last month by the Livingston County Board of Commissioners.
The vote came in the early morning hours Wednesday after more than five hours of public comment as nearly 100 of those in attendance took to the podium to express their views. So many turned out that officials had to utilize an overflow room to handle the crowd.
The fact that those speaking against the resolution outnumbered those in favor by a roughly two to one margin, failed to sway the board’s majority, despite emotional testimony from those on both sides.
One of those speaking out against the resolution was Timberlyn Mazeikis of Holland, who sheltered in place during the mass shooting at Michigan State University in February.
“The feeling of thinking I was about to die is something I still cannot shake three months later,” she said. “This resolution is an absurd abuse of power and should be left to the judicial branch to decide. Speaking to you today is scary, but nothing will ever compare to the fear I felt that night when a shooter entered my school. Ottawa County will always be, and has been, my home. Over the last two years, I have found a second home at Michigan State. I have already lost one home to gun violence. Don’t allow it to become two.”
Others, like Joel Buck of Georgetown Township, expressed support for the resolution as a check against what he said is an out-of-control, tyrannical government.
“Why after 247 years is our government now pushing so hard to take away our guns?” he said. “Is it because they’re about to do something that we’d shoot them for? The Second Amendment was placed in our Bill of Rights as a check to protect ‘We the people’ from a tyrannical government. If publicly speaking like I’m doing now on this topic, places me on an FBI watch list for domestic terrorism, would that be considered tyranny? If you live in a country that will lock you up until you can prove your innocence for speaking against its government, then you live not in a free country. And if I can’t live in a free country, I want to live in a free county.”
The one vote of dissent against the resolution came from the lone Democrat on the board, Commissioner Doug Zylstra. Prior to the vote, he sought to affirm the principles expressed in the resolution, but find a less confrontational way to state them.
“I do think we have an opportunity here to kind of take a step back maybe and look at our stated objectives,” he said. “Maybe there is an opportunity for us to look at some of the concerns. I am going to pass out some language I put together that I think definitely supports and upholds our stated objectives, as well as kind of dealing with some of the concerns of residents that they’ve shown us over the last four days, as well as here.”
He then made a motion to strike the first 14 paragraphs and replace them with wording that the county would “pledge to continue their commitment to support and uphold both the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions in their entirety as interpreted by their respective judiciary, and thus ensure that Ottawa County is a place where all are constitutional freedoms are both honored and respected.”
No second was made to the motion and it failed to move to a vote.
Board Vice Chair Sylvia Rhodea spoke in support of the resolution and sought to explain why she and other Ottawa Impact leaders felt it was necessary.
“In recent years, our county government has required affirmation of a Marxist DEI [Diversity Equity and Inclusion] value system for some county positions, and has spread DEI beliefs throughout the county,” she said. “In protecting the constitutional right to ‘keep and bear arms’, we must remember that arms defend not only individuals, but ultimately entire nations from the hands of tyrannical governments. In America, our government is comprised of checks and balances with elected officials in different seats, holding different powers and responsibilities. The Board of Commissioners, as elected representatives of the people, provides oversight over certain county departments and has fiduciary responsibility over county government operations. We would be negligent in our duties if we did not ensure that the Constitution is upheld and protected while fulfilling our responsibility to the people of Ottawa County.”
However, many of those who spoke expressed the opinion that the Ottawa Impact majority is emphasizing a deference for the Second Amendment while abusing the First Amendment, as exemplified by a recent editorial in the Holland Sentinel. Written by county Health Department employee Marcia Mansaray, she alleged Moss and County Administrator John Gibbs of subverting the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process and Open Meetings Act (OMA).
In February, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a letter admonishing certain members of the Ottawa County board for a lack of transparency and good governance, and for “violating the trust placed in them as elected officials by their constituents.”
Nessel also said she would be proposing updates to the OMA that would close what she believes are weaknesses in the law, specifically that the definition of the term ‘public official’ include a person who has been elected or appointed to public office, even if they have yet to actually take their oath of office.
That reference was to the first meeting of the new board on Jan. 3 which began with a flurry of hastily added motions, resulting in the firing of former County Administrator John Shay and the closing of the county’s DEI Department and changing of Ottawa County’s vision statement from “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings.” It appeared to many that the moves had been coordinated in advance of the meeting and out of the public’s eye.
The actual effect of the “Constitutional County” resolution is unclear. Both Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker and Prosecutor Lee Fisher told WOOD-TV that it would not affect how they operate.
In addition, Nessel’s office has already stated that such resolutions are “not legally binding on local law enforcement.”
The majority of those who urged the board to pass the resolution referenced the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, the reforms Whitmer signed into law Monday. Also known as a “red flag” law, it allows family members, law enforcement and other individuals to petition a court to temporarily prohibit people from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.
Nessel spokesperson Danny Wimmer previously told the Michigan Advance the argument that the laws are unconstitutional, illegal or unenforceable is not based in the law.
“The statute establishes the highest threshold of civil court standards, requiring clear and convincing evidence for the issuance of an ERPO,” said Wimmer. “Laws similar to the recently passed legislation in other states have repeatedly withstood constitutional scrutiny and been upheld in the courts.”
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