Recently, I watched a video montage showing dozens of “local” network television news anchors delivering, verbatim, a statement about truth in reporting. The only variations in the words reported were the community’s name and the station’s network. When I first saw this clip, it made me chuckle. The spirit of their message, each delivered from news anchors with heartfelt sincerity, is that your local news is independent and trustworthy. Now if this message had been broadcast by a single news anchor in one community, it could be taken more seriously. If it was truly an organic message, brought forth out of concern by the news agency to report the truth, there would be no need to question the motive. However, when the message was broadcast from every major station affiliate, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox from Boston across the country to Seattle, it caused me to question the earnestness of it. In other words, this message is simply a narrative, brought forth by the corporation that has controlling interest in all these local stations.
Locally, some media organizations are pushing forward narratives about things happening in Ottawa County. I’m going to use the word narrative here as opposed to truth. These narratives include:
- Commissioners endorsed by Ottawa Impact are “far right, extremists.”
- Operations within Ottawa County Government became “political” in January 2023.
- The new administration in the County Government has created a hostile work environment.
- The closure of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department will cause businesses to leave Ottawa County.
After eight months of being in the Commissioner’s seat, my perspective on these statements is that they are indeed narratives and not facts.
Some people will agree with these statements because it fits their worldview. Other people will disagree with these statements because they can offer examples to the contrary.
Let’s look at narrative #2 from the list above as an example. The word “political” is in reference to politics, which, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “the activities of the government, members of law-making organizations, or people who try to influence the way a country is governed.” It is factual to say that the creation of a new county department is a policy initiative that intends to influence the way the country (or county, in this case) is governed.
For example, in 2019 the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners created the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In doing so, the board took political action as this department was created for the purpose of so-called race equity in the county.
In similar fashion, in 2021 the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners created the Ottawa County Groundwater Board to influence conservation of water resources. In citing these examples, I am not casting judgment to support or oppose the creation of these departments, rather my intent is to simply acknowledge, in fact, that political activities have been taking place, long before the new board members were sworn in this year. It is noteworthy that some political activities are more controversial than others, but this is something I will expound upon later.
Let’s look at narrative #3: The new administration in Ottawa County has created a hostile work environment. Examples cited for this narrative include staff members leaving the organization. I think this narrative is mainly based on Patrick Waterman’s comments upon leaving County employment less than a year from when he was hired. Since it is already established that the County acts as a political body, it’s safe to say that certain employees at the County were hired due to their ability to move forward the policy priorities of the administration. Most organizations operate this way. So, it should come to no surprise that Patrick has been hired by John Shay a second time at their new place of employment, the City of Wyoming.
So, beyond the Deputy Administrator leaving to reunite with a former employer, by what measure has the new administration created a hostile work environment?
I can cite several examples where the new administration is supportive of the ideas promoted by County staff. The Facilities Department has been reorganized at the behest of the County Administrator and Facilities Director, based on an analysis that called for changes in structure and responsibility in response to shortcomings and inefficiencies they identified. Likewise, recently, the County Clerk presented a request for staffing promotion of an Elections Coordinator, the Water Resources Commissioner sought the approval for streamlining accounting and financial operations within his department, a promotion was provided to the Communications role, and investments continue in the upcoming Capital Improvement Plan to address equipment needs, personnel space and carrying forward priorities of departmental leadership.
I contend that changes in personnel are less a result of a hostile work environment, but rather a desire by those employees to work alongside individuals that share common worldviews and an orientation towards common goals. The new administration has been employed to bring about change; some individuals did not agree that changes were necessary and have taken opportunities elsewhere.
Narrative #4: With the closure of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Department, businesses will leave Ottawa County. I believe there are similarities to this narrative and narrative #3. Business owners will consider economic advantages and disadvantages when their operations hinge upon the availability of government infrastructure, programs or policy initiatives. An example of this would be the large investment we’ve seen in cannabis and marijuana oriented businesses that have come to Michigan since the legalization in 2018.
Eight months in, I have not witnessed divestiture in Ottawa County on a large scale, however I have witnessed investment of new businesses choosing Ottawa County.
Since January, the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has authorized grant participation on three properties for businesses that are performing environmental restoration and creating new enterprises within Northwest Ottawa County. Also, on August 8, I met with a business owner in Grand Haven Township that is relocating from nearby Norton Shores. He has chosen Ottawa County instead of moving out of state. While these are just a few small examples, it can be a reference towards businesses that still believe Ottawa County is their best option for locating their investment.
During the campaign season of 2022, I was asked in a radio interview with WGHN how I differ from my Primary opponent. In my response, I said that most of our campaign materials and priorities were similar, yet we have a difference of opinion on the DEI initiative. Similarly, I responded to a candidate survey from the Grand Haven/Ferrysburg/Spring Lake Chamber of Commerce where I said I believe the draw of Ottawa County has been freedom first, then the high quality of life, amazing environmental resources, strong family, civic and religious heritage, all of which have led to economic prosperity.
We have an organic heritage of success in Ottawa County built upon labor and investment from peoples that have come from across all parts of the world.
In our Republic, voters choose individuals to represent them based upon a campaign of political position statements. When the voters feel the candidate has not performed in agreement with their worldview, they choose a different candidate. This happened on a large scale in Ottawa County in 2022 where we saw only three incumbents of the 11-member County Board being re-elected. One way to measure the magnitude of this change is to say 73% of Ottawa County Districts choose something different over the status quo.
While there are many narratives surrounding why this happened, the fact is a change in direction was overwhelmingly sought by the People of Ottawa County.
How does narrative #1 fit into this circumstance? Are the newly elected Board of Commissioners truly far right extremists?
Is it possible that two nurses, an elementary school teacher, a social worker, and a Public Works professional espouse views that are just too extreme for the average citizen of Ottawa County? Have these individuals not already shown a track record of capably performing service to members of the public? In other words, did the voting public deem them fit to serve? Moreover, does their previous work experience in some way disqualify them from holding public office?
How do we qualify the individuals that we vote to represent us? As I state above, it boils down to campaign political position statements being used as the guiding measure to determine if these representatives are delivering on their promises.
Next year, we will vote again to determine which individuals best represent our values. This is the first opportunity to have an official determination if narrative #1 is held by a majority of Ottawa County voters. In the meantime, until we see the results of the next election, I’d like to offer a few narratives of my own that I hope our residents will seek to find truths that support them.
- The Board of Commissioners are actively working to carry forward the policy priorities that were championed during the 2022 campaign that a majority of Ottawa County residents supported in the election.
- The new administration and Board of Commissioners invest time to research, question, and investigate matters that are brought before them for consideration.
- The Board of Commissioners prioritizes the People of Ottawa County over the Government of Ottawa County.
This is an opportunity to judge the new Board of Commissioners and the new administration by our results, which is an invitation to be involved and understand the reasons that support the decisions we make. Here, I acknowledge my fellow Commissioner Gretchen Cosby, as I have overheard her encouraging people in this way on more than one occasion.
As we move through the second half of the first year of the new administration and first opportunities to influence the County budget and strategic plan, please be mindful that narratives are a tool used by political actors.
Often, these narratives have more power to influence perception than fact, which is precisely why it is important to always consider the perspective and point of worldview held by those that push narratives as truth.