Traverse City News and Events

Bergman Resolution Drives Commission Debate Over Partisan Politics, County Roles

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 18, 2021

A proposed resolution of support for Republican Congressman Jack Bergman generated more than an hour of public comment and lengthy discussion among Grand Traverse County commissioners Wednesday about partisan resolutions and priorities for the board. A motion to approve the resolution failed in a 3-3 vote, with one Republican voting no and another abstaining - both saying the timing of the resolution was inappropriate.

County Commission Vice Chair Ron Clous asked for the resolution to be placed on Wednesday’s meeting agenda. The resolution language cited the “many accomplishments and dedicated service of Congressman Jack Bergman to the citizens of Michigan’s First Congressional District,” praising Bergman’s military service, support of pro-growth tax reform, “unwavering commitment” to constitutional rights, and work to “protect the lives of the unborn.” Commission Chair Rob Hentschel – who has final approval over the agenda and invited Bergman to give the opening invocation at Wednesday’s meeting – put the resolution on the consent calendar. The consent portion of the agenda is typically reserved for non-controversial items that are approved without commission discussion. Members of the public and Commissioner Bryce Hundley asked to have the item removed from the consent calendar so it could be discussed before a vote.

Clous declined to discuss his reasons for submitting the resolution, saying the document “speaks for itself." Hentschel said the resolution was “timely and appropriate” given that Commissioner Betsy Coffia has been quoted in recent news articles as supporting Defund Bergman, an initiative aimed at pressuring Bergman donors to divest from his campaign. “We do want the people to know that this is not us (as a board) doing that, it’s a commissioner doing that,” Hentschel said. Commissioner Brad Jewett pointed out that county commissioners in the past have unanimously passed similar resolutions of support for State Senator Wayne Schmidt and former State Representative Larry Inman. “It’s nothing new to see these resolutions,” he said.

But several members of the public protested, with residents opposing the resolution's passing by a two-to-one margin during an hour-plus of public comment. Citing a recent survey that identified affordable childcare, housing, and mental healthcare as top concerns for county residents, resident Pam Forton asked how the resolution addressed those issues. “Making resolutions like the one you're making today does nothing to help your constituents and is a purely political statement that does no one any good,” she said. Amanda Scott, who announced she will run as a candidate in the next election in district seven – Hentschel’s district – said the resolution “certainly does not belong on the consent calendar” and told commissioners to “quit wasting (residents’) time” with symbolic resolutions not related to county business. 

Other residents spoke out in favor of the Bergman resolution, citing the congressman’s military and public service, and questioned Coffia’s involvement in the Defund Bergman campaign. County Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Alisa Korn said she was “disappointed” that Coffia would try to pressure donors of any political candidate, noting that residents have free speech rights. Former state representative candidate Heather Cerone said exposing political donors was “despicable” and “dangerous behavior” and suggested Coffia resign or be censured.

On the heels of recent controversy involving Clous and Hentschel over a rifle display during a virtual commission meeting, some commissioners – notably those new to the board – expressed uneasiness about taking up a contentious resolution so soon after that incident. Commissioner Penny Morris said she personally voted for Bergman and would donate her “next paycheck” to him, but was wary of the “timing and the procedure” surrounding the resolution. “I think we need to make a better effort to not look partisan,” she said. Commissioner Darryl Nelson agreed, expressing frustration that in his 48 days as county commissioner, board and public attention has primarily focused on issues not related to county business. “I don’t feel like I’ve been able to do the things I signed up for,” he said. “I implore all of us to get back to our business at hand.”

Hundley, who tried to remove the resolution from the agenda entirely but was voted down, said that while every commissioner on the board is a “highly political being” and free to support any causes or candidates they choose, taking official action on such resolutions as a board was inappropriate. “Where it actually steps over the line is when it’s brought to this county meeting,” he said. 

Commissioners ultimately voted 3-3 on the resolution, with Hentschel, Clous, and Jewett in support and Coffia, Hundley, and Morris opposed. Nelson, who conferred with county legal counsel prior to the meeting about his voting options, abstained. The tie vote caused the motion to fail.

Coffia said that in the future, the board could consider general resolutions of support for all state and federal elected leaders representing Michigan, regardless of party, but that otherwise commissioners should stop putting forward contentious resolutions and “spend the next two years focused on things that are not partisan.” Nelson agreed, saying he was looking forward to tackling “really exciting things like budgets and vaccination counts” as a board.

“That’s how we can best serve our constituents,” he added.

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