Roger Bergman and Doug Zylstra are preparing for a new term on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners unlike any other.
The two incumbent members will soon be joined and far outnumbered by a slate of commissioners backed by the Ottawa Impact Political Action Committee. The political organization has spent recent years vetting candidates who back their policies to, among others, eliminate “divisive” diversity teachings and any governmental involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion.
The Ottawa Impact slate is a conservative Christian political movement in West Michigan initially born out of resistance to refugee resettlements and later the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. The eight new Ottawa Impact candidates and one incumbent haven’t been sworn into office yet, but soon after the Nov. 8 election had already announced their chairperson, Ottawa Impact co-founder Joe Moss.
Ottawa Impact candidates rarely grant media interviews. Moss and the Ottawa Impact office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
While it remains to be seen how the slate will govern Ottawa County, leaders of community organizations say they are willing to work with any new officeholders. However, others in the community fear their hard-line stance against publicly backed diversity and equity could ultimately jeopardize economic development efforts in the county.
Meanwhile, the current commission in recent months took steps to protect the county’s DEI office, which has so far been largely funded by donors, including major businesses in the community.
“I don’t know for sure, but I suspect one of the first things they want to do is get rid of the (diversity, equity and inclusion) director and her office because they have this mistaken belief that she is teaching critical race theory, and all of that is nonsense,” said Bergman, a Republican who represents portions of Grand Haven Township, Grand Haven, Ferrysburg and Spring Lake Township. “The DEI department’s goal is to work with county employees to help them better interact with our customers, the residents of Ottawa County.”
‘Equity jeopardizes liberty’
Eight Ottawa Impact-backed candidates were voted onto the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners between the August primary and November general elections this year. The PAC also endorsed incumbent District 6 Commissioner Kyle Terpstra, who represents Georgetown Township. Bergman and Zylstra will be the only commissioners not supported by Ottawa Impact when the new county board term starts in January.
Zylstra also is the lone Democrat to serve on the board.
In addition to Moss, the newly elected commissioners are Gretchen Cosby, Lucy Ebel, Jacob Bonnema, Rebekah Curran, Sylvia Rhodea, Roger Belknap and Allison Miedema. To receive funding from the Ottawa Impact PAC, which built up a sizable war chest in this year’s election, the candidates were required to sign a contract that includes the phrase: “We recognize our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage and celebrate America as an exceptional nation blessed by God.”
The contract is on Ottawa Impact’s website and lists a public policy agenda that includes supporting civil liberties, parental rights, transparency, removing the county from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), and ending “divisive” diversity teachings.
Ottawa Impact also has a statement on diversity, critical race theory, inclusion and racial equity on its website, where it states that equitable practices lead to socialism, and that “equity jeopardizes liberty.”
Part of the Ottawa Impact contract states that candidates will support “discontinuing Ottawa County’s divisive teachings aligned with critical race theory such as racial equity, privilege vs. oppression based on skin color, intersectionality, implicit bias, systemic racism and revisionist history.”
DEI in jeopardy
Businesses and municipalities increasingly are turning to in-house diversity, equity and inclusion leaders or offices, particularly since the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
Ottawa County formed its diversity, equity and inclusion office at the end of 2018 and approved the staffing plan in February 2019. Several Ottawa County employers and nonprofits welcomed — and even helped to fund — the office. The new office also drew criticism from conservative community members when it was formed.
The county board voted in October to approve a severance agreement for Robyn Afrik, who serves as the county’s DEI Director. The county board approved the package as a preventative measure, anticipating the Ottawa Impact majority in 2023 and their stated goals to eliminate the DEI office. The deal offers Afrik three months of severance pay with benefits if she is terminated. Afrik did not respond to a request for comment.
Johnny Rodriguez, executive director of Holland-based Latin Americans United for Progress, believes eliminating the DEI office would negatively affect the county’s ability to attract workers, particularly during a tight labor market. The nonprofit offers a range of programs including youth development, citizenship classes and business development for all community members, with a focus on the Latino population.
“To have somebody at a local government level that is focused on things that are inclusive, ultimately that has a huge impact that many in our community don’t see,” Rodriguez said. “It is very important that the county has a DEI office and we’re thankful for the work they are doing. If you look at it on the employer side of things, we have these companies that are doing well that are building brand new buildings, but we can’t even fill those roles right now.”
Many human resources managers are “hurting” for job applicants right now as they struggle to attract talent to the area, Rodriguez said.
“I have spoken to many employers in the area and they are all inclusive and will attract top talent, it doesn’t matter where that comes from,” he said. “From the business sense, it just makes sense. DEI was a business term, it was never supposed to be a political football.”
Bergman and Zylstra share concerns about the business implications of dissolving the DEI office.
“Part of the office itself was funded by business interests. They have a material stake in the office because they believe that having this DEI office will increase the economic vitality of Ottawa County, and I believe that, too,” Zylstra said. “If in January we take steps to remove that, it will definitely have economic repercussions.”
The existence of the county DEI department “sends a signal” to potential employees and current employees that DEI work is a focus for the county, said Gloria Lara, executive director of the city of Holland-based Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.
“The thing that’s really important is having an economy that’s welcoming for all,” Lara said.
Ottawa County’s DEI department has a “fair amount of funding coming from other entities,” said Karen Karasinski, the county’s director of fiscal services. The county planned for about two-thirds of the DEI office budget to be funded by donations in its first three years, with the county funding the remaining expenses. The county received $388,000 in donations for the office from 2019 through the end of the 2021 fiscal year, Karasinski said.
Donations from foundations and private donors go through the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area. The cost to Ottawa County for the first five years to operate the office is about $630,000. Funding comes from a combination of public, private and nonprofit sources.
The DEI office identifies more than 50 organizations in its 2021 annual report as “partners” of the office, providing leadership, financial sponsorships and resources to the office. The list of partners includes the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area, Gentex Corp., HermanMiller Cares, Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, Talent 2025, North Ottawa Wellness Foundation, Shape Corp., Haworth Inc., and the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.
Mike Goorhouse, the outgoing president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area, is disappointed that the county’s DEI office appears to be a target for incoming commissioners.
“This is a group of folks who have outwardly campaigned on the goal of getting away from the DEI office and the work that many of us have invested in,” Goorhouse said. “The community foundation helped start that office, and a lot of folks are concerned about that.”
Karasinski said the original plan was for the county’s match to start small and grow to fully fund the office after 2024.
Ottawa Impact roots
The Ottawa County Health Department issued a COVID-19 mask mandate in 2021 that required students and staff in preschool through sixth grade to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, 1,000 people showed up to the county board of commissioners meeting on Aug. 24, 2021 for eight hours of public comment opposing the public health order.
The fallout also sparked efforts to recall the commissioners, Zylstra said.
People started showing up in droves at county meetings back in January 2020, when the county was voting on whether to continue allowing refugee resettlement, Bergman said.
“That was kind of when people started coming out of the woodwork on issues. Then two months later was the pandemic and they kind of caught their wind and it got bigger and bigger until we had 1,000 people at meetings,” Bergman said.
Moss founded Ottawa Impact in February 2021 after the Ottawa County Health Department shut down Libertas Christian School, where he was working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moss’ daughter also attended Libertas, which failed to comply with the state mask mandate, according to media reports.
The political group “blindsided” most of the public, Bergman said.
“They came out strong with a lot of money and people working for them,” Bergman said. “They went out in teams of three and would do door-knocking every Saturday with two or three teams of three people each. They basically bought this commission.”
The Holland Sentinel reported in late July that TGIF Victory Fund PAC, a political action committee heavily funded by West Michigan developer Daniel Hibma, made significant contributions to Ottawa Impact candidates. In its latest campaign finance report, the TGIF Victory Fund reported raising nearly $250,000 through October, including $115,000 from Hibma. The PAC contributed a combined $10,000 to five Ottawa Impact candidates in June, according to state filings.
Meanwhile, the Ottawa Impact PAC brought in more than $106,000 in campaign contributions this year, according to campaign finance reports. It directly contributed more than $9,100 to Rhodea’s campaign, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind expenditures for Ottawa Impact candidates’ campaigns, county filings show. The in-kind contributions for specific candidates are listed for campaign T-shirts, web hosting and printed marketing materials.
It remains unclear how Ottawa Impact candidates will govern starting in 2023. Most recently, Ottawa Impact issued a statement opposing the county’s plan to spend $32.7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, saying the new commissioners should have had a say in the process.
In a Nov. 9 post-election press release, the group touted election victories at the county board level as well as board candidates at several local school districts.
“Ottawa Impact is excited for the future. Since May of 2021, Ottawa Impact has informed the people of the growing misalignment of government and political entities with freedom and all we hold dear. The people of Ottawa County responded by actively advocating with elected officials and school boards to defend our county, and have now spoken with their vote,” the statement reads, in part.
“We encourage the citizens of Ottawa County to remain engaged on the local level to defend these priorities into the future.
“Ottawa Impact will continue its work in thought leadership and truthful journalism, educating and training our people in advocacy for the preservation of all we hold dear.
“Ottawa County is filled with beautiful people. They are not deplorable, they are not extreme. Our people are hardworking Americans who love God, their families, and their children. We are honored to serve and lead this amazing county.”
To Zylstra and others, though, the group’s governing priorities remain unclear.
“There is general unease as to what might happen,” Zylstra said. “No one knows the future, but obviously with such a large turnover on the board, there is some unpredictability. For myself and other folks I’ve talked to in the community, it’s just a sense of unease about not knowing what’s happening.”
Bergman said he is looking into finding more moderate candidates to run for the county board in the future.
Lakeshore Advantage Corp., the economic development organization that serves Ottawa and Allegan counties, declined to comment on the Ottawa Impact candidates’ potential effect on economic development efforts.
“Our team will be working to build a relationship with our newly elected commissioners and understand their priorities when they take office,” Lakeshore Advantage President Jennifer Owens told MiBiz via email. “We can not speculate what may or may not happen when they take office.”
Grand Haven Chamber of Commerce President Joy Gaasch and Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce President Jodi Owczarski declined to answer specific questions about the slate of candidates, but they did respond with broad statements that they are supportive of an inclusive community that is “welcoming to all.”
Representatives from Metal Flow, Gentex and Herman Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
Even though Rodriguez is concerned about the new board, he hopes to still be able to work with them in some capacity.
“Ultimately, they were voted in and my hope is that we can work together with all of them and they can see the importance of making sure everybody feels they belong and has opportunities to grow here and has career opportunities,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got work to do in this community.”