Court injunction negates board action on refugees
A Rutland Charter Township man who spoke out against a refugee resettlement request approved by the Barry County Board of Commissioners last week has filed a complaint against two commissioners, alleging they violated the Open Meetings Act.
Joel Ibbotson, 31, said his civil rights were violated at the Jan. 14 meeting when his public comment was interrupted by Vice Chairwoman Vivian Conner and Commissioner Jon Smelker.
In the incident report filed with the Barry County Sheriff’s Department on Saturday, Jan. 18, Ibbotson told a sheriff’s deputy that commissioners broke the law.
“I was interrupted during my initial public comment at the Barry County Board of Commissioners meeting by vice chair Vivian Conner 18 seconds before my three minutes had expired,” said Ibbotson in the police report. “I believe this was in Violation of PA 267 of 1976 MCL 15.263 Sec. 3 (5) ‘A person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body. The Legislature or a house of the Legislature may provide by rule that the right to address may be limited to prescribed times at hearings and committee meetings only.’
“Vivian Conner breached the peace.”
Ibbotson contended his civil rights were also violated in a second instance during the meeting.
“I was also interrupted and I believe I was declined use of my First Amendment right during the second public comment section,” said Ibbotson. “Both the vice chair … and Smelker stated that I must address the board.
“Vice Chair Vivian Conner went as far as to state she understood what I said about my right to address the public during the public comment yet proceeded to demand I address the chair and not the public. During this parliamentary inquiry point of order they continued to run the clock on my three-minute deadline and gaveled me out before I was done addressing the board.”
The complaint states the matter was brought to the attention of Sheriff Dar Leaf on Jan. 18.
Leaf did not mention the complaint to Conner, however. She said Tuesday night that she was unaware a formal complaint had been made.
During the board’s Jan. 14 session, Conner had been running the meeting in the absence of Chairwoman Heather Wing, who was sick.
Ibbotson was among about a dozen people in the audience who spoke during that meeting. Many of them, including Ibbotson, were commenting on the refugee resettlement issue.
Ibbotson was one of few in the audience who commented more than once during the meeting. He spoke during both periods allowed for public comment, which occur at the beginning and the end of the meeting.
“I only asked him to follow our protocol,” Conner said. “I have every confidence that I followed the Open Meetings Act and that I followed the protocol used by the three chairpersons before me.
“No violations occurred.”
The issue that dominated the discussion at the Jan. 14 meeting was prompted by a request from Bethany Christian Services to authorize a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The letter states the county's consent to allowing the resettling of unaccompanied refugee minors with licensed foster families in the county.
Bethany has never before placed refugee adult or families in the county, according to Jane Trejo, Bethany program manager.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Sept. 26 that required refugee resettlement agencies like Bethany to obtain written consent from state and county governments to continue refugee resettlement work in that county. It required written consent in the form of a letter addressed to Pompeo.
But a federal court ruling last week negated the need for a consent letter, Trejo informed the board in a letter dated Friday, Jan. 17.
A lawsuit filed last November questioned the legality of the executive order, Trejo wrote.
“On Jan.15, U.S. District Judge (Peter) Messitte issued a preliminary injunction halting the implementation of the Executive Order,” she stated. “According to the terms of the injunction, the State Department’s Notice of Funding Opportunity, which required resettlement agencies to submit consent letters as part of annual grant applications to serve resettled refugees, also cannot take effect.”
According to Trejo, the court injunction means that, for the time being, refugee resettlement will continue as before without expressed consent in locations as determined by the federal government based on family and community connections, affordable housing, and job opportunities, and with existing consultation with receiving communities.
“We are immensely grateful for the consent letters we have received thus far from a bipartisan group of 42 governors and more than 100 local officials,” Trejo wrote. “These letters have been critically important, as they have helped us safeguard the refugee resettlement program regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit.
“They also reflect the widespread bipartisan support of refugee resettlement from communities across the country. We continue to greatly value the partnership of Barry County and the state of Michigan in the federal refugee resettlement program.”
“We did what was asked of us and we did the right thing,” Commissioner Ben Geiger said after the county board meeting Tuesday. “…If we would have said no, it would have been a whiplash for the families involved. I’m glad we said yes.”