GV students respond to Ottawa County’s conservative changes


GVL / Meghan Tripp

Payton Brazzil, Staff Writer

On Jan. 3, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners made several changes to the county’s leadership and implemented conservative messaging. Some of their initial actions include dissolving the county’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and changing their motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.” 

Eight of the 11 commissioners are backed by Ottawa Impact, a conservative political action committee that has been campaigning for these changes for two years. 

The newly-elected board members also voted to immediately replace multiple administrative leaders, such as the county’s top leader and health official. Ottawa County Administrator John Shay was fired and replaced by John Gibbs, who is the former acting assistant secretary under Donald Trump’s administration. 

In response to these sweeping changes, President Philomena Mantella issued a statement to the Grand Valley State University community via email addressing Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the recent removal of the county’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

Mantella shared her concern about the efforts to dismantle structures and support for equity and inclusion in Ottawa County. 

“Inclusion is critical to the economic and societal well-being of the region, and we will engage in discussions with local leaders and others to share this belief,” Mantella wrote. “We expect our campus community, and the people we serve, to be able to thrive in a diverse and inclusive environment.” 

She also announced that the GVSU community will be seeing more work from the Inclusion and Equity Activation and Accountability Team (AALT), including new training, surveys and recruitment. 

Before the statement from Mantella, the College Democrats, a student organization at GVSU, released a statement on their social media in response to the Ottawa County Commissioner’s conservative changes. The student organization stated the changing of the motto “speaks to their intent that diversity is not welcome.”

College Democrats’ President Jacob Welch said even though the county’s motto changed, their organization is dedicated to be inclusive of everyone in the community. 

“What we can do is continue to help make people feel comfortable in Ottawa County,” Welch said. “Regardless of what they might change and say, Ottawa County is still where you belong for everyone and nobody will be able to stop us from achieving that.” 

According to the board’s resolution passed on Jan. 3, the motto “Where You Belong” was used to “promote the divisive, Marxist ideology of the Race Equity movement” and “used to establish the DE&I Department on the premise that county resident characteristics of being 90% white and largely conservative were problematic for businesses.”

Welch expressed his unease for not only the motto change but all of the changes, including the removal of multiple staff members.

“The changes are brash and irrational,” Welch said. “The removal of an entire department on their first day and several more experienced civil servants, only to be replaced by their political buddies is, frankly, below the office they serve.” 

While Welch does not agree with the new changes made by the commissioners, College Republicans’ Vice Chair Zachary Schmidt does. 

Schmidt said he agrees with the changing of the slogan, firing the County Administrator and the removal of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion staff. 

“I believe the changes were made as a consequence of the election that took place last November,” Schmidt said. “Many of the current members of the board ran against the previous board because they did not represent the values of the citizens of Ottawa County, and I am happy to see that the new board members are keeping the promises they made to the citizens of Ottawa County.” 

Although Schmidt does not think the changes will have a lasting effect on GVSU, he does think “it will save the taxpayers money and is a return to the local government reflecting the values of the people who they govern.”

Schmidt does not have a comment on any other potential changes. 

In contrast, Welch believes the conservative changes can impact the GVSU community, but doesn’t think the Board of Commissioners will directly do anything to the university. However, he does think that this changes the perspective that outsiders have of the GVSU community. 

“I don’t want us to be the college with a bad reputation simply because we as a community are unwelcoming – that simply isn’t true,” Welch said. “Our Office of Multicultural Affairs and Milton E. Ford LGBT Resource Center are both amazing resources, and something that thankfully, the board of commissioners can’t get rid of.”