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Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?

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Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?

Jun 18, 2024 | 3:28 pm ET
By Sarah Leach
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Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
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On May 7, 2024, Democrat Chris Kleinjans defeated Ottawa Impact Republican Lucy Ebel by a 20-point margin | Courtesy photo

Democrat Chris Kleinjans made headlines last month after winning a special recall election to become Ottawa County’s newest commissioner on the GOP-dominated board. 

Now he’s fighting for his job — and not the one in the boardroom.

Two weeks after Kleinjans defeated Ottawa Impact Republican incumbent Lucy Ebel to represent the 2nd District, he was informed by the Michigan State University Extension Office leadership that his new role as a commissioner was “incompatible” with his employment as a community nutrition instructor.

An attorney for Kleinjans, however, says MSU Extension leadership forced him out, bowing to political pressure from Ottawa Impact, which threatened to not renew the Extension’s contract with the county in December if Kleinjans was allowed to continue to work there.

What’s happening now

On May 7, Kleinjans won his seat after a 10-month recall process against Ebel, a member of Ottawa Impact (OI), a far-right fundamentalist group formed in 2021 over frustrations with the county and state over COVID-19 mitigation measures.

Since taking office in January, Ebel and other OI-linked commissioners pushed through a series of controversial decisions, resulting in several lawsuits against the county. The recall petition was filed in July and the process took more than five months to get secured on the May ballot.

Two weeks after winning the seat, Kleinjans was informed that his employment with MSU Extension would no longer be viable, giving him an ultimatum of taking an unpaid leave through the remainder of the year or termination.

05.23.24 Formal meeting summary Christian Kleinjans Letter May 23 2024

 

“The university’s legal counsel and administrative human resources determined that holding both positions simultaneously is incompatible,” according to an email from MSU Extension District 7 Director Scott Korpak on May 23. “If Mr. Kleinhans is re-elected in the November 2024 election, it is the university’s understanding that he will resign. If not, the university would move to terminate his employment with MSU Extension.”

Kleinjans’ attorney, Sarah Riley-Howard, said the university is in the wrong and threatened legal action if his job isn’t restored.

“Respectfully, we disagree … with terminating Mr. Kleinjans’ job because he won his election to take office as an Ottawa County commissioner. It is evident … that … MSU Extension has unfortunately — and illegally — bowed to pressure from the Ottawa Impact-controlled commission majority,” Howard wrote in a letter dated June 13 to Jessica Nakfour, director of human resources for MSU Extension.

06.13.24 Howard letter to MSU Ltr to MSU Extension - 6-13-2024

 

How it started

In January 2023, Kleinjans took notice of the actions of the Ottawa Impact majority on the board, which inspired him to get involved.

He said he became concerned about his local community when “things started getting stranger in the body politic nationally,” combined with a toxicity he saw on social media platforms.

“And then, I think things just got so toxic. The previous presidential administration — there was just no chill. And now I have members of my family where we don’t see eye to eye on these things. And we would go long stretches of time without talking to each other and that doesn’t solve anything; it doesn’t get you any more closer to the solution,” he previously told The Holland Sentinel.

Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
Ottawa County Commissioner Chris Kleinjans | Courtesy photo

Working as a nutrition educator at the time through MSU Extension’s Health and Nutrition Institute, Kleinjans focused on food education and cooking demonstrations for people with special needs and on the poverty threshold.

He explained that his position is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which then funnels down to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services and then to the Extension.

“We do a lot of hands-on cooking, because that is a skill that has atrophied and gone to the wayside as families get more busy,” he said. “It’s not something that is transferred from generation to generation anymore, plus, with the proliferation of processed foods that are high in sodium and high in fat, it’s easy to not cook. So I do a lot of discussion-based talking about healthy eating or healthier eating. We also do cooking classes and demonstrations.”

On Nov. 7, the county’s Finance and Administration Subcommittee unanimously approved a contract agreement to continue the MSU Extension Office’s services through fiscal year 2024, which began Oct. 1, for $272,572.

In the contract, the county agrees to provide office space, utilities, clerical support and funding for an Extension educator, which covers the 4-H programming coordinator in the county.

The timing was slightly later compared to previous years, as recent county boards had the contract with MSU fully approved no later than October: Oct. 26 in 2021 and Oct. 25 in 2022.

October 2023 was a messy month for the current board, however, as their focus was on a failed termination hearing for county Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley that began Oct. 24 and prompted multiple subcommittee meetings to be rescheduled and regular county business delayed.

Hambley sued commissioners in February, claiming the OI-led board illegally attempted to demote and remove her from her position. The lawsuit was settled in February, which saw Hambley remaining in her position.

On Nov. 10, county Democrats voted to select Kleinjans, now 56, as their nominee to face Ebel in the May recall election. That wouldn’t be announced publicly for another month, but an intervening factor became a focus of intense interest days later that would put Kleinjans in the spotlight.

Amidst the board’s battle with Hambley, the health department’s budget was slashed by $4 million for Fiscal Year 2024, which was approved Sept. 26, prompting criticism from health department officials and residents.  

 

Of particular concern was the impact on Ottawa Food, a collaboration of over 45 local agencies and individuals that exists to ensure all Ottawa County residents have access to healthy, local and affordable food choices.

The full-time coordinator position provided the logistical connective tissue between the private and public sectors that participate in the county-wide program. The position was eliminated after the nutrition and health education line item was cut by 48%. At the time, Moss and then-Administrator John Gibbs assured residents the funding for the position was in the budget, with Gibbs repeatedly telling commissioners: “It’s in there.”

Ottawa Food’s advisory board looked at the funding situation and, on Nov. 14, the entity announced it was suspending operations.

“During budget negotiations, it was brought up repeatedly that the Board of Commissioners didn’t want to see Ottawa Food operations reduced or eliminated. However, they also knew that by reducing the health education budget, this was a highly probable outcome,” according to a media release from the advisory board dated Nov. 13

“Prior to the final budget vote on Sept. 26, listening sessions were held with Ottawa Food members to determine possible paths forward. Following the cuts made in late September, 76% of Ottawa Food members voted to pause the model of Ottawa Food as it’s been operating, rather than continue without a full-time coordinator.”

Kleinjans, then a member of the Ottawa Food Advisory Board, was listed as the media contact on that news release. Shortly afterward, MSU started to feel some pressure.

Internal conversations begin

Kleinjans said he notified his supervisors that he had been asked to run in the recall election should the recall election be confirmed for the May ballot — which the county clerk’s office announced Nov. 14.

On Nov. 17, Kleinjans said Gibbs called James Kelly, then-interim district director for MSU Extension’s District 7 where Kleinjans worked, informing Kelly that the contract with Extension was being pulled from the board of commissioners’ consent agenda for the Nov. 21 meeting.

That prompted Kelly and M. Scott Korpa, the new District 7 director, to appear at the Nov. 21 meeting to introduce themselves to commissioners. During his public comment, Kelly informed the public and commissioners that the two had a meeting with commissioners scheduled for Dec. 7.

Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
Erin Moore | Courtesy photo

Meanwhile, Kleinjans had asked for a meeting with Erin Moore, assistant director of MSU Health and Nutrition Institute, and Stephanie Marino, supervising and staff development educator, to discuss his concerns about the blowback over the Ottawa Food announcement.

Moore, however, had bigger concerns about the Extension’s contract in relation to Kleinjans’ candidacy and what consequences would arise if commissioners didn’t approve the budget. 

“I do want to put on the table in front of you, just so that you have a very clear picture of what happens if this budget does not pass,” Moore says in a recording of the Nov. 27 meeting obtained from Kleinjans. “This could … really scare your colleagues: If that budget does not pass, we no longer have an office in Ottawa County. We no longer function as Extension in Ottawa County. Three people are directly funded through our budget and … it is possible that jobs could be lost.”

Moore characterized the political climate as “dire,” regardless of whether Kleinjans pursued the elected office. 

“If this were any other county, any other part of the state, where it was just a little less contentious, we wouldn’t be talking about us being defunded because of your interaction with politics,” she told Kleinjans on the recording. “But that is our reality right now … is that there is a vengeance-type of relationship that this board has with the only power that they have with this money, and that is to defund those that are ‘against them.’”

Kleinjans responded: “If this were any other county, I probably wouldn’t be considering this.”

Moore told Kleinjans on the recording that Extension leadership was continuing to try to get answers on why the contract was in limbo.

“We had passed the consent agenda. It was a 10-1 vote,” she said of the Nov. 7 Finance and Administration meeting. “They have now reopened it, so we are no longer part of the consent agenda, and they have pulled us off of Tuesday’s [Nov. 28] meeting, and we have not gotten word from John Gibbs about the reason around that, but we are working the back channels with some other commissioners to try to understand the bigger picture of why that’s happened.”

She speculated that the delay could be surrounding the Hambley situation or the name recognition Kleinjans had with his role on the Ottawa Food Advisory Board, but she says one thing was clear: “Whoever controls the board, controls MSU Extension.”

 

“My sense is that [this is a] vindictive, tit-for-tat-type of board, and they’re using the levers that they have, and this is one of their levers — the power of the purse to be vindictive,” she said on the Nov. 27 recording.

Moore advised Kleinjans in the recording that should he win the seat in the recall, he would need to abstain on any votes relating to the MSU Extension. She never informed Kleinjans that he potentially would lose his position if he won.

“You would have to abstain from that vote through the conflict of interest, and they might seek vengeance then, too,” she said.

Extension meets with Moss and Miedema

On Dec. 6, Kleinjans publicly announced that he was the Democrat who would be running against Ebel for the May 7 special recall election. He also had resigned from the Ottawa Food Advisory Board.

The next day, Kelly and Korpak met with Moss and OI Commissioner Allison Miedema to discuss the role of MSU Extension in the county. 

Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
Commissioner Allison Miedema | Ottawa County photo

“The intent of the meeting initially was to provide some information to Commissioner Miedema about Extension programs, because she’s the extension liaison from the Board of Commissioners,” Matt Shane, associate director of the Extension’s field operations, explained in another audio recording from Dec. 14 during a meeting with Kleinjans.

“Joe Moss attended that meeting, as well, and so it started out as intended — to provide kind of an overview of Extension services in the county, talk a little bit about the MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] and structure what it funds, all of that process going into what we hoped was going to be getting the MOA final approval from the board of commissioners,” Shane said.

The conversation soon pivoted to Kleinjans and his work with the Extension and in the county.

“Throughout the course of the conversation, obviously it shifted a little bit to some of our work with Ottawa Food in particular, and your role with them, and … your membership on the board, and those things,” Shane told Kleinjans on the recording. “So that was all discussed and addressed in fairly generic terms. [They] talked about … you stepping down from that board and separating from those responsibilities.”

Shane explained that Kelly and Korpak told Moss and Miedema that Kleinjans was in compliance with university policies in terms of the school’s employment handbook. 

“They don’t necessarily agree with our university policies around you being able to perform your job responsibilities in a mutual fashion and campaign for a board seat at the same time, but we explained that those two things are done separately — that you have rights as a private citizen and a resident of Ottawa County to run for that seat,” Shane told Kleinjans. “They don’t like it; they don’t agree with it, but nonetheless, it is what it is.”

Then Kleinjans’ employment came into the conversation and, along with it, the fate of the Extension contract with the county.

“Their basic request, if you will, throughout the course of that conversation, was that they wanted your responsibilities for work in Ottawa County to cease and do your work in another county, another location, or in some other fashion, not representing MSU Extension in Ottawa County during the course of your campaign, and in essence, without that, the MOA would not be up for further discussion,” Shane told Kleinjans on Dec. 14.

“So right now … the MOA for Ottawa County will be on hold indefinitely, or at least for the foreseeable future, and not make it on a board agenda to have further discussion, which obviously has impact on our 4-H and agriculture programs,” he said on the recording. 

Shane also said Moss and Miedema insinuated that the Extension’s office space in the county would be in jeopardy.

“There was also some mention in that meeting about how highly desirable our Ottawa County MSU Extension space is in that building, and that there are other departments that certainly would benefit from having access to that space as they look at restructuring some of their other departments and forming other departments and offices within the county,” Shane told Kleinjans on the recording. “They’re sort of holding up our MOA and relationship with Ottawa County government while you’re continuing to work as an MSU Extension employee in Ottawa County and running a campaign at the same time.”

Moss and Miedema did not return a request for comment for this story.

 

Shane also indicated that Kleinjans had the support of the Extension leadership and was not at risk of an employment change.

“Our stance is our stance,” he said on the recording. “From the beginning, we have these policies in place for a reason. We are adhering to those policies. As long as you adhere to the guidelines that we’ve put in place for you, you’re not in violation of those policies. We do not plan to change our stance on the work that you’re doing. We’re not planning to relocate you to another county. We’re not planning to change your work responsibilities in any way other than what we’ve already asked you to do, in terms of not wearing logo wear.”

Shane told Kleinjans that Moss and Miedema requested a response by the next week and that Extension leadership was slow walking that reply. 

“The board asked for a response from us of what we were going to do about this request. We’re also not going to be in a big hurry to provide that response,” he said in the recording.

Kleinjans said he didn’t hear any updates after Dec. 14 from Extension leadership.

The board of commissioners put the contract on the agenda for its Jan. 16 meeting and was approved unanimously without discussion; it’s unclear if any further discussions occurred between Extension leadership and commissioners.

MSU contract

 

The high of victory to the loss of employment

Kleinjans said he didn’t have any further discussions after the contract was approved in January, but that he kept his supervisors updated on the status of his campaign.

On May 7, he defeated Ebel by a 20-point margin, 2,502 votes to 1,665. 

“I feel good,” Kleinjans said after the unofficial results were reported by the county clerk’s office. “You know, we put in a lot of work to make … this result happen. … We talked to a lot of voters. I had a great team of people and volunteers that helped move this thing to the line, and I’m grateful for the result we got.”

Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
Ottawa County Commissioner Lucy Ebel was defeated in a recall election this month | Courtesy photo

Sixteen days later, Extension leadership called a meeting with Kleinjans to inform him that his new role would prevent him from continuing to work there.

Shane, who led the conversation May 23, explained to Kleinjans that, although he was a “valued” member of the Extension team, there was a conflict of interest in being a county commissioner and continuing to work for the university.

“We’re trying to find the smoothest path of transition for you to work through as you go through this interim position,” Shane said in a May 23 recording of the meeting also obtained from Kleinjans. “And I know that you see potentially a path where both roles simultaneously is a realistic opportunity. Unfortunately, as we look at it from the guidelines. … We can’t find that path to where you would be able to serve in both capacities.”

Shane then explained that Kleinjans’ only option is to take a leave of absence through the remainder of his current partial term and to “separate” from the university should he seek reelection in November and win.

The candidate filing deadline was April 23, and Kleinjans had already filed at the time of the May 23 meeting. Shane went on to explain that the university’s legal counsel “came back” with the leave suggestion after Kleinjans was elected.

In response, Kleinjans referenced what Moss and Miedema allegedly asked for in December, which was a transfer out of the county.

“To be honest, having been apprised of a conversation that took place between commission members and members of Extension staff, I was kind of surprised that no one stumbled upon the idea of just transferring me out of the county earlier. But if I was not in Ottawa County, I would not be working in Ottawa County. Therefore any conflict of interest, theoretically, would not be in existence,” Kleinjans said on the recording.

Shane responded: “That’s not completely true, because you still represent Extension in both capacities.”

Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
Ottawa County Commission Chair Joe Moss, Jan. 10, 2023 meeting | Sarah Leach

“So out of the several thousand contracts that the county commission approves, as far as budgetary matters, this all rests on my inability to recuse myself from one budget vote for a budget that actually has nothing to do with my personal role in Extension?” Kleinjans asked in the recording.

Shane said Kleinjans was “oversimplifying” the matter. 

“Because Extension is a statewide, countywide organization that has many partnerships in Ottawa County and connections that you work with that have some connection to Ottawa County government … there’s a lot of implications of how Extension does work in the county. It’s not necessarily just about one contract and one budget vote,” Shane said in the recording. “That’s not where the university sees the conflict. Inherently, that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole of it. … Because of the nature of the work that we do within the county, it’s impossible to separate the work of Extension and the role of county commissioner.”

Howard, Kleinjans’ attorney, Sarah Riley-Howard, said the university is on the wrong side of the law and that Extension leadership is attempting to placate Moss and the OI-controlled board as the Extension looks ahead to get a contract renewal for the Fiscal Year 2025 this fall.

“Under Section 15.181(b), a person’s elected office and public employment are incompatible only if there is the subordination of one public office to another, supervision by one office to the other, or a ‘breach of duty of public office,’” Howard wrote to the Extension’s human resources director in a letter dated June 13.

Howard also argued that several legal opinions from the state attorney general’s office found that dual roles were permissible in some circumstances, including Kleinjans’ situation.

“Instead, we believe that the actual reason for this decision is that MSU Extension has bowed to political pressure from current Ottawa County Commissioners aligned with Ottawa Impact and Lucy Ebel, Mr. Kleinjans’ opponent in the recall election,” Howard wrote in the letter. “As I am sure you are now aware, Ms. Ebel also remains a candidate for the next full commission term in the August primary and the November general election, where she would face off against Chris again. In firing him because of Ottawa Impact’s political pressure and somewhat obvious intent to harm Mr. Kleinjans’ ability to make a living, MSU Extension has violated Mr. Kleinjans’ First Amendment rights.”

 

For his part, Kleinjans said he feels betrayed by his longtime employer after more than a decade of service.

“One of the things that you get in the military is you are definitely imbued with a sense of commitment and loyalty to the group,” said Kleinjans, a Navy veteran. “I was high-performing. The letter I got acknowledges that I am high-performing and a valued member of the MSU Extension team. I’m not a slacker.”

He said he supported the university, even during times when scandals tied to MSU were making headlines, including football coach Mel Tucker’s alleged sexual harassment allegations and MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon’s handling of disgraced former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted more than 150 women and girls during his time with the program.

“I felt I was very committed to it. I’d never talk bad about the organization publicly, even through Nassar, even through the most recent thing with the football coach, even through the other things — I was a good representative of the organization in the community, and I brought my military ethos into this job and … I feel really hurt.”

Was Ottawa County’s newest commissioner punished for running?
An email dated June 6, 2024, from interim Ottawa County Administrator Jon Anderson to Commissioner Chris Kleinjans. | Screenshot

Kleinjans said his suspicion of political meddling was underscored when he received an email to his county commissioner account from Interim Administrator Jon Anderson, who was appointed by the OI-led board and is running as an OI-vetted candidate for county sheriff.

“Hi Chris — hope all is well and you’re settling in,” Anderson wrote. “I had a reminder from my notes to check with you about your position with MSU. I do not have any personal knowledge about a potential conflict of interest, but I recall there was a question about a potential conflict when you were elected. If there is anything you need, please reach out.”

The timing of the email from Anderson, who was appointed March 12 after Gibbs was fired Feb. 29, matters, Kleinjans said.

It was dated June 6, two days after Kleinjans was no longer working there.

He was formally sworn in as a county commissioner on May 28; at the next commissioners’ meeting on June 11, the reception from other commissioners wasn’t exactly warm.

When Commissioner Doug Zylstra, a fellow Democrat, asked to give the newcomer more subcommittee assignments to “give him an opportunity to learn,” board Vice Chair and OI Vice President Sylvia Rhodea responded: “I just want to point out that we don’t owe Commissioner Kleinjans anything.”