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Authoritarianism at the GT BOC

Sylvia Mccullough

Analysts, scholars, journalists and many more have been commenting and writing for years on the rise of authoritarianism in western democracies, including the United States. They have come to a consensus about some of the primary tools used by dictators to further authoritarian control.

There is a culture of authoritarianism seeping down from right wing Republican extremist legislators at state and federal levels to local government entities such as the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners. This has been observed through the public’s participant observation and attendance at these meetings over time, where the Chair and some of the Commissioners have been seen to be employing a number of the following tools:

1. Controlling and preventing access to information:

It has been noted on more than one occasion, that items up for votes have been added to the agenda with only a 24-hour notice, for example a meeting of an Ad Hoc Ethics Committee was added to the agenda the day before the meeting was to take place at a time and day the Committee did not usually meet. It is also noted that the Chair, Rob Hentschel, had deemed himself the sole controller of what can be put on the agenda and only recently under pressure of fellow board members, the Board voted to allow commissioners to put an item on the agenda if three (3) members support it.

Hentschel's long time, highhanded insistence on being the sole controller of what gets onto the board's agenda and his penchant for making arbitrary last-minute changes demonstrates his disdain for the democratic processes of our county government. With such behavior, he encourages a culture of authoritarianism on the board which has seemingly infected the Republican wing of the Commission who regularly refrain from criticizing Hentschel’s antidemocratic penchant, casting supporting votes in the face of hundreds of protesting citizens who have gathered on various occasions, in person or on Zoom. Examples of this would be the Line 5 Resolution and the vacuous 2nd Amendment Gun Resolution that Hentschel pushed to pass despite widespread opposition.

The April 1, 2020, meeting of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, the first held virtually due to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order issued by Governor Whitmer in response to the Covid-19 crisis, was another prime example of controlling and/or preventing access to information by Chairman Rob Hentschel.

Hentschel changed the wording of a policy on the agenda to provide all county employees with sick and family leave under the Federal Leave Act minutes before the meeting began, by exempting county employee first responders and healthcare workers from such benefits without consulting the Sheriff's department or Health department officials. Because of microphone malfunctions, the change to the policy was not conveyed intelligently to board members, some of whom thought they were voting for the original policy wording.

2. Spreading false narratives of what is taking place or has happened:

On August 21, 2019, a resolution was voted by the Grand Traverse Board of Commissioners to support the building of a tunnel to house Enbridge Line 5 which passed on a 4 – 3 vote. Passing such a resolution which wraps all the citizens of Grand Traverse County into the same envelope is not an honest representation of public opinion in our county. What it does represent is the unsupported opinion of four of the commissioners who voted to support the resolution. At that meeting over 50 citizens spoke against passing the resolution and many more protested outside the building.

This resolution was then used covertly as “evidence” in an article published in the Detroit News on Oct 22, 2019, entitled “Northern Michigan Wants the Great Lakes Tunnel.” One of the authors was identified as the Chairman of Grand Traverse County Commission, Rob Hentschel. The article included Grand Traverse County in a list of northern counties which had passed resolutions for the support of the Enbridge Line 5 tunnel. It was, in fact a false narrative of what had taken place.

3. Character assassination of those who disseminate the truth:

In August of 2019, over 100 people representing a wide range of local organizations and individuals, gathered at the Grand Traverse Board of Commissioners to protest endorsing the Enbridge Line 5 Tunnel and keeping Line 5 operating. They presented to the Board a wide range of facts and information regarding the threat to the Great Lakes should the line break. Chair Hentschel dismissed the calls to shut down Line 5 and not build the tunnel because he claimed many of those who spoke were females whom he characterized as “emotional” dismissing their fact-based presentations. The speakers were defamed by Hentschel and made to look foolish. Their testimony against building the tunnel was summarily dismissed.

4. Dismissal of State and Federal Laws

Further evidence of Henschel’s and the board’s authoritarian bent came at the March 4, 2020, GT BOC meeting when fears were beginning to emerge that the Coronavirus would become a worldwide pandemic. Instead of working to put forth policies and procedures in anticipation of how that might affect the people of Grand Traverse County, he introduced a nefarious 2nd Amendment Gun Resolution in support of ignoring future gun safety laws that may be enacted by our state legislature, laws which 90% of Americans support over-all.

By putting this on the agenda Hentschel either overtly or covertly invited, bad actors from outside our county including Randy Bishop, “Trucker Randy”, a right-wing talk show host, twice convicted felon for fraud. Members of the Proud Boys who supported the resolution were also in attendance. The Proud boys are described as a “far-right neo-fascist organization that admits only men as members and promotes political violence,” During the session some supporters of the resolution appeared to caress and fondle concealed firearms under jackets and in ankle holsters. The perceived impression of the entire carryings on was one of threat and intimidation orchestrated by the Chair of the BOC, another direct tactic employed by authoritarian dictators and their regimes.

A further infamous example of the Republican majority’s dismissal of state laws and executive orders came at the January 20, 2021, board meeting with “Resolution 8-2021 in Support of Vaccine Awareness and Medical COVID 19 and Vaccines.” The resolution was sponsored by Hentschel, crafted and moved by Brad Jewett, seconded by Ron Clous.

Jewett’s pandemic resolution says the board will not “support the expenditure of any county funds for the arrest and prosecution of any person accused of violating” state health department orders. It further instructed county residents and businesses to “act responsibly” and “use their own good judgment” – in effect, giving bars and restaurants a green light to reopen.

The resolution, which was the first major test for newcomers Daryl Nelson and Penny Morris to see whether they would vote in lockstep with the Hentschel wing of the BOC (they did). It was publicly opposed by Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg and Sheriff Tom Bensley. The Republican majority passed the resolution even after Moeggenberg and Bensley testified that the resolution was a usurpation of their legal authority. During his presentation, Jewett memorably made the following comment: “If the Good Lord wanted us to wear a mask, we would have been created with a mask.”

In conclusion, citizens who care about the quality of water from our Great Lakes deserve better. Our first responders and healthcare workers deserve better. Citizens who support enacting sensible gun safety laws deserve better. The citizens of Grand Traverse County deserve to be assured that state laws enacted to ensure their safety, and that of their children, during a raging pandemic be enforced, deserve better.

Come November 2022, please vote for responsible candidates who will respect our democratic processes and who will vote to ensure the safety, health and well-being of all our citizens.

This is an amended version of a piece previously published in the Record Eagle.


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