The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

Commissioner discusses implications of Ottawa Impact with GV College Dems, students

GVL / Alena Visnovsky

Grand Valley State University’s College Democrats organization hosted Holland Commissioner Doug Zylstra to speak about the effects of the political group Ottawa Impact on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners at the Allendale campus on Oct. 19. 

Ottawa County has received national attention for the actions of the Ottawa Impact group, with multiple members holding positions on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners. These commissioners are in charge of making a multitude of changes to Ottawa County’s government and budget.

Ottawa Impact was formed in 2020 after a group of parents came together against a COVID-19 safety mandates including closing restaurants and mask enforcement.Their mission was to replace the county commissioners with individuals they believed would protect individual and parental rights. 

These parents grouped together with dozens of other individuals and formed the organization Ottawa Impact as a 501(c)(4), or social welfare organization, in early 2021. They claim their mission is to “preserve and protect the individual rights of the people in Ottawa County.” 

Zylstra, current Democrat Commissioner of Holland of five years, came to the meeting organized by the GVSU College Democrats to speak out about what’s happening in Ottawa County. He said there is a lack of respect among the board for those outside the Ottawa Impact group, the other commissioners frequently side with anti-LGBTQ motions and proposals like the “Resolution to Protect Childhood Innocence,” and said there is a general disregard for public health. Zylstra said the communication amongst the commissioners is often poor. 

“I was very optimistic the first two, three months. Then over the past four, five months, especially with budget season and what they discussed with public health, I find it very hard to really trust my colleagues,” Zylstra said. “This is a very bad place to be. It’s to the point now where I feel like we don’t really have a team.” 

With Ottawa Impact holding the majority within the Board of Commissioners, Zylstra said the majority is overpowering in discussions of policy.

“Four to five people run the agenda, and the rest of us are hanging on to the side of the car as it plows down the highway,” Zylstra said.

The GVSU College Democrats feel that Ottawa Impact is a “far-right” political group. Ryan Virsik, the co-president of GV Dems, said the group planned on winning the majority in the Board of Commissioners elections.

“Ottawa Impact is a far-right group that has funded a lot of candidates in 2022. Their main strategy was winning the primaries before winning the general election in November and gaining the huge majority of the Board of Commissioners,” Virsik said.

That strategy was successful. Ottawa Impact Members who won the election include current Board Chairperson Joe Moss, Vice-Chairperson Sylvia Rhodea, Gretchen Cosby, Roger Belknap and Allison Miedema. 

Zylstra and Distict 10 Commissioner Roger Bergman have been recalled from the board for advocating for LGBTQ rights.

GVL / Alena Visnovsky

“My personal situation is that I have been recalled, and there is a definite strain when it comes to LGBT issues. There was an incident here on campus with sexuality issues,” Zylstra said, referring to recent gay-rights protests at GVSU. “But there was a big issue with Grand Haven Pride. It was the first year they had pride. So public health tends to go to every event they can go to, they (Ottawa County Department of Public Health) did go to Pride in Grand Haven, and my colleagues did not like that. They did not like that Ottawa Public Health had a booth at pride.”

Public Health Departments of any city frequently have booths at events to encourage the spread of information regarding a variety of topics. Zylstra said the commissioners’ meeting in June was one of the most difficult he has endured. He said the things that were said and implied from their participation at Grand Haven Pride lead to other rhetoric and policies against the LGBTQ community were initiated. 

“Shortly thereafter, there was a Resolution to Protect Childhood Innocence. The substance of the resolution was ‘we do not want staff to attend events that sexualize children,’” Zylstra said.

This seems to be a common sentiment among many far-right individuals, especially during Pride Month. Many far-right individuals claim that LGBTQ individuals ‘groom’ children into becoming gay.  

“When obviously the resolution was very anti-LGBT in nature, it just didn’t say that. They say, ‘No, we’re not Anti-LGBT we just don’t want our department to go to events that sexualize children.’” Zylstra said.

Other Ottawa Impact concerns include the county commissioners’ proposals to cut the Ottawa County Department of Public Health’s budget in half. Immediately after being sworn in on Jan. 3, the Ottawa Impact majority eliminated the county’s Division of Inclusion and Equity (DEI) Department, fired the previous county administrator and replaced him with John Gibbs without holding a public interview and replaced the existing legal counsel with Kallman Legal group. These motions were not well-received.

The new commissioners also tried to demote the recently elected Administrative Health Officer, Adeline Hambley, to Interim Health Officer to replace her with Nate Kelly, who, Virsik said, is “vocally anti-vax” and “anti-mask.” Hambley has taken their attempt to demote her to court and has filed a case to stop the hearing where the Commissioners plan to discuss firing her.

Kelly’s qualifications have been called into question by both members of the community and the Board because Kelly does not have any Public Health Administrative experience. When Hambley spoke on this issue, the Commissioners reduced the health department’s budget by over 2 million dollars. In contrast, however, individuals like John Gibbs received a $30k raise, and the Kallman Law Firm was paid over $300,000 and will continue to be paid even if their services are dismissed. 

Zylstra said he is concerned over the direction that Ottawa County is going. He said he had had little to no communication with Chairperson Moss since January saying that he’s only received one one phone call because Moss “didn’t want to write a check to an LGBT group.” 

GVSU community members feel people in the area are reacting to the political challenges in Ottawa County in a way that could shape the future of the community through polls, policy or other actions.

GVL / Alena Visnovsky

“People want to fight for democracy. It’s not happening anywhere – it’s happening right here,” said Meegan Zickus, the faculty advisor for the GVSU College Democrats. “So when everyone looks at their aspirations and their futures and their jobs, this is where you want to be. Every place in the U.S. and the world is looking at Ottawa County.”

The recall against Zylstra is being appealed and citizens of Grand Haven are also collecting signatures to retract the recall of Bergman.

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