2023-09-11T13:14:21-04:00August 3rd, 2023|

The people of Ottawa County are largely quiet and peace loving, with deep beliefs and strong opinions.

Only when wrongs grievously violate their deeply held beliefs do our people rise to take action. In recent years, such a stirring has occurred.

What began with the tyranny of public health overreach into work, parenting, schools, and medical care—and continued with government entities pushing divisive, racist, and sexuality agendas onto our children and county eventually culminated in the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners being overturned in the 2022 election. Ottawa County is filled with everyday Americans who simply want to live their lives and raise their children in freedom, according to their values.

Recent Board of Commissioner meetings have been filled with thoughtful, truth-filled, and at times hard-hitting public comments from conservatives regarding local, state, and federal issues. Individuals from progressive Ottawa Objects, a group which includes Democratic Party leadership and the Sentinel’s Sarah Leach, regularly attend to share their discontent with the conservative board majority delivering on campaign promises.

A clear division of left and right fills the room—perhaps not surprising in a community where the voices on one side are motivated to protect childhood innocence, medical freedom, and America itself, and the other side has advocated for covid mandates, sexuality and gender transitions for children, and the dismantling of America’s structure in the name of CRT’s “anti-racism.” The underlying belief systems of the left and the right have arguably never been further apart.

In the midst of this cultural divide, we approach Board meetings with the understanding that all people desire to be heard—whether we agree with their political perspectives or not.

Admittedly, we do not take every comment to heart, especially those laced with profanity, or alluding to our bodily harm, or promising to hurt the future of our grandchildren. (Of note, the harshest comments come from an individual leading the left in the recall effort against Commissioner Ebel.)

And so it is ironic that there have been recent requests to silence the newly awakened right, who of late have made the left’s representation at Board meetings feel uncomfortable—and reportedly feel “unsafe.” Of course, there have been no threats directed at members of the general public observed during Board meetings. It has been noted, however, that members of the public on both sides will at times clap and communicate with others, including at times making known their disagreement with certain public comments. A letter to the editor in two newspapers this week suggested Chair Joe Moss was responsible for residents feeling “unsafe” in Board of Commissioner meetings. And so there are requests for Moss to intervene and silence the crowd. For example:

“What should Mr. Moss do if he is truly interested in ensuring freedom of speech during public comment? He could require the audience to refrain from applause and remain silent.”

Interestingly, this advice comes out of the same group which has repeatedly accused Moss of unjustly wielding power, and yet they are now asking he do exactly that.

Commissioner Zylstra wrote to Moss:

“I do think the idea of constraining applause among all attendees may indeed be a strong first step towards addressing the underlying unruliness we’ve seen lately. If we could do that, then hopefully we wouldn’t have to take any additional steps which might affect freedom of speech or assembly.”

This methodology of silencing public response to comments has been utilized in Ottawa County before.

Former Chair Bergman instituted these restrictions during the Covid-19 era in response to parents and students clapping for each other during public comments regarding public health’s handling of school masking and quarantines. It was perceived by the public to be yet another form of government tyranny.

Has the audience been energetic at Board meetings? Yes. Could they be quieter? Yes. But the right to free speech does not include a right to silence others, or a right to have “unhurt” feelings while exercising free speech. Perhaps part of the recent difficulty for the left is the imbalance in the room due to an increased number of supporters of the conservative Board majority.

While we desire that all citizens treat others with kindness and courtesy, government entities are not responsible to provide citizens with a space in public meetings where they are protected from any verbal response from others to feel emotionally safe. Emotional “safety” as perceived by an individual is not a constitutional right and does not override the constitutional right to the expression of free speech of others in a public meeting.

If there are true concerns for physical safety, such concerns should be brought to the sheriff.

Again, the concern now being politicized about civility and safety comes from members of a group who have repeatedly verbally bashed the county commissioners—on occasion for hours at a time.

I respect their right to redress their grievances with local government. However, it is clear they are not concerned about the emotional well-being of every member of our community, particularly those they disagree with.

The right to free speech and assembly provides the opportunity to address grievances and communicate with elected representatives. The county commissioners have intentionally not restricted these rights when more restrictive guidelines could have been put in place modeled after previous boards. The Board also moved one meeting per month to evening hours to make it easier for people to attend. When attendance at a meeting is large, public comments have not been reduced to one minute like was done by the previous Board of Commissioners.

The current Board of Commissioners has listened to hours of public comments from those who disagree—often disagreeing impolitely, over the past seven months.

And now, members of Ottawa Objects, finding themselves outnumbered by conservative voices who don’t agree with them, want the Board Chair to act in a heavy handed manner and silence dissent from their point of view.

The suggestion again is:

“What should Mr. Moss do if he is truly interested in ensuring freedom of speech during public comment? He could require the audience to refrain from applause and remain silent.”

What would Chair Moss be expected to do if the audience continued to exercise their right to free speech despite imposing new restrictions? Perhaps pound the gavel? The Holland Sentinel may love the opportunity to add another article to their collection of nearly 100 hit-piece articles on Moss and Ottawa Impact. Would Moss call the sheriff? Also, not a good look, but is that the desired result?

All who attend Board meetings are invited to lower the temperature in the room, and to treat others with kindness and respect, even when they don’t agree.

In this time of great cultural differences, it may be helpful for each of us to remember disagreement does not equal hate. We can disagree with each other, and still work together.

We are committed to governing for the people as we promised we would do. And that includes governing with principles of freedom and constitutional rights at the forefront. We are a Constitutional County, and we will continue to protect free speech in the board room of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.