Price of a reputation—Bonnema censured by Ottawa County Board of Commissioners
Published July 22, 2023
Written by Adams
Photography by Simply American
“A censure is an official rebuke; it’s an expression of strong disapproval for actions taken. It’s one of the only mechanisms a board has to hold members accountable for their actions.” —Board Chairman Joe Moss
On the table Tuesday, June 27, 2023, during the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting was a Resolution to Censure Commissioner Jacob Bonnema for Abuse of Power. One of the reasons listed on the resolution was: “The Board does not support abuses of power or baseless, defamatory accusations.” This statement was in response to the events surrounding Bonnema’s actions on March 14, 2023, toward Administrator John Gibbs.
According to Commissioner Gretchen Cosby, prior to the start of the March 14, 2023 Board of Commissioners meeting, Bonnema got up from his chair, walked across the room, and leaned down within inches of Administrator John Gibbs’ face.
Cosby and Commissioner Rebekah Curran spoke about this conduct at an Ottawa County GOP meeting on June 20, 2023, at which the GOP previously voted to censure Bonnema. Curran agreed with Cosby stating, “I was kind of on the other side of the room. I would say that in fairness, Jacob was a little close.”
A full week after the incident, Bonnema sent an email complaint to the Director of Human Resources, Marcie VerBeek, copying Commissioners Kyle Terpstra, Curran, and Chairman Joe Moss. Bonnema’s email highlighted the exchange he had initiated with Administrator Gibbs, claiming he had said, “John, I am a Commissioner. It is my job to provide oversight on matters like this.”
At the end of the email, Bonnema wrote, “Please investigate this [Gibbs’ conduct] for violations of HR policy. I have attached and highlighted some of the ways I believe it was violated. Gibbs’ behavior was threatening, insulting, hot tempered, and bullying.” Bonnema added, “I have no choice but to report it.”
On June 7, 2023, VerBeek shared with the Board the results of the HR investigation. Her email states, “After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the [Bonnema’s] claim is unfounded, and the charges raised are not sustained.” The email further states, “The evidence gathered during the investigation did not substantiate the claim of harassment.”
During the June 27, 2023 board meeting, Bonnema gave a public statement to the Board, commenting on the moments he was in Gibbs’ personal space. Bonnema said he “reminded Mr. Gibbs that our role as commissioners is to provide oversight over his position.”
Bonnema rightly affirmed in his public statement that the Board as a whole has oversight of the Administrator. In contrast, Bonnema’s email to HR seemed to claim that providing oversight is his job.
On multiple occasions, Bonnema has emphasized his focus on policy and process. Following are statements he has made on his commissioner Facebook page and during board meetings:
Facebook post, March 16, 2023:
“I am fighting for transparency, accountability, decency, and good governance to return to the Board of Commissioners. I have not changed. My conservative values have not changed. We agree on policy, but not on process.”
Facebook post, March 16, 2023:
“Our decisions affect over 300,000 people. The process leading to these decisions should be allowed to be seen by those that are affected by them.”
BOC meeting, June 27, 2023:
“Well, good policy is not vague. Good policy is complete; it’s specific.” He added, “I am about making great policy.”
During the Board’s discussion for the Resolution to Protect Childhood Innocence on June 27, 2023, Bonnema specifically asked to “let that process take place. Let’s not rush it through.”
Bonnema followed neither process nor policy when confronting Gibbs.
The Board, as an 11-member whole, oversees Administrator Gibbs and holds him accountable. Bonnema chose not to consult the other commissioners regarding his concerns about Gibbs. Instead he unilaterally went to HR.
Typically, these types of complaints are issued privately. It is county policy to keep them confidential, allowing people the freedom to make complaints when they feel there’s an issue.
Bonnema, however, copied numerous people in his email complaint.
Not following process or policy was a point reiterated by Moss in the following statement:
“Commissioner Bonnema has told me that he believes Administrator Gibbs is incompetent and wants him removed as Administrator. His complaint alleged a litany of charges including harassment, threats, insubordination, and indecent conduct.
On March 14, 2023, Commissioner Bonnema, in my opinion, attempted to subvert the statutory authority of the Board of Commissioners and subvert the democratic process by which the Board of Commissioners oversees the Administrator.
His baseless, unfounded and, in my opinion, defamatory complaint disenfranchised nearly 300,000 citizens in Ottawa County because he attempted to ignore the oversight role of the County Board. Instead he weaponized the county HR process. His actions removed 10 Commissioners from having any voice in the process and kicked off a month-long investigation that cost thousands of dollars.
This type of abuse of power must not be allowed to stand. This Board was elected to curb abuse of power and government overreach. A censure is an official rebuke; it’s an expression of strong disapproval for actions taken. It’s one of the only mechanisms a board has to hold members accountable for their actions. If this Board chooses not to censure or sanction Commissioner Bonnema, then we condone his actions. That is a choice each board member has to make.
If Commissioner Bonnema will submit what became an unfounded complaint against the Administrator, my question is… who else might he complain about?
I committed to restore the bonds of trust between the people of Ottawa County and their elected representatives. We must promote and protect liberty and to take actions to stop government overreach.
We must govern with the least force possible. This was absolutely not the least force possible. This was going straight to HR to issue a complaint. We must promote due process and defend the rights of the people, so they may live without fear of intimidation from their local elected officials.”
Weaponization Of The Media
Since January 3, 2023, local media organizations have inserted their bias into Ottawa County politics. Bonnema has added his voice to the media barrage of misinformation, targeting his grievances against fellow commissioners.
In Bonnema’s complaint against Gibbs, he references a news report as evidence in his email to HR. The first two sentences of Bonnema’s email state: “I am writing to address a threatening outburst by Administrator Gibbs directed towards myself. This has been reported publicly by the media…” The email continues, “This is the exchange that was reported on my [by] WZZM…”
“I believe the news articles were intended to harm Administrator Gibbs,” Commissioner Roger Belknap commented during the Board’s censure discussion on June 27, 2023.
While claiming concern for protecting employees of Ottawa County, Bonnema curiously waited for media reports to come out before he filed a report to HR. Bonnema then used the alarmist reports about Administrator Gibbs as facts to his claims.
With HR’s determination that the claim against Gibbs was unfounded, and after much discussion and many amendments, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners voted 6–5 to censure Commissioner Bonnema.
The Board also voted to recommend Chairman Moss remove Bonnema from one standing committee for the remainder of 2023. Moss agreed to take the Board’s recommendation of removal under advisement, but did not take specific action on removal the night of the June 27, 2023 meeting.
Many claimed that the actions of the Board could disenfranchise District 4 residents. Historically, commissioners have only served on two or three of the five standing committees, including Bonnema’s predecessor.
In January of 2023, the Board adopted new rules which no longer limited each standing committee to five members, but rather provided for the Board Chair to appoint commissioners to serve on each standing committee without limit. Chair Moss chose to appoint each commissioner to the committees they desired. Commissioners Bergman and Terpstra currently serve on two standing committees.
If Bonnema is ultimately removed from a standing committee for the remainder of 2023, he will continue to serve on four other committees.
But what is the cost of defamation? Administrator Gibbs will bear the personal cost of the less-than-private allegations.