In just eight months under the leadership of Chairperson Wes Nakagiri, the Livingston County Board of Commissioners has devolved from a fairly well-functioning, generally non-newsworthy public body into a hot mess of controversy and dysfunction. I’ve said it time and time again, and I’ll say it once more: Nakagiri doesn’t have the skill set and the vision necessary to lead Livingston County’s government; inside of him beats the heart of a culture warrior, not that of a community advocate, and it shows.
In the beginning of the year, the board appeared to be giving Nakagiri some space in which to learn the ins and outs of being the chair, but controversy after controversy, crazy meeting after crazy meeting have taken their toll. Two recent split votes had me suspecting that Nakagiri’s brand of culture-warrior politics was veering afield; now, a resolution coming before the board’s General Government and Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday has me convinced that less-radical heads on the board are working to contain the damage being done.
The first split vote that got my attention came after Nakagiri twisted himself into a pretzel — even coming up with a new rule — in order to replace former County Commissioner Steve Williams on the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Board because Nakagiri objects to diversity training for Metroparks employees. It was a controversial move, and you can read all about it by clicking here.
The second split vote — and, truthfully, the more significant of the two given Livingston County’s high COVID transmission rate and the current sorry state of the pandemic — meant the Livingston County Health Department had to forego $1.5 MILLION in funds for its COVID relief efforts. That $1.5 MILLION is money the department needs as its current funding expires this month and infection rates continue to soar. The head-scratching move was actually a tie vote, 4-4, with Commissioner Carol Sue Reader absent, which means the resolution failed on the tie. I have no idea how the vote would have gone had Reader been in attendance, but we may learn more about that on Tuesday.
For the record, the four commissioners who voted to have the LCHD forego $1.5 MILLION in funding were Nakagiri, Jay Drick, Brenda Plank, and Martin Smith.
Across Livingston County, jaws dropped, hands wrung, and tongues wagged in absolute horror and disbelief that the county board did not accept $1.5 MILLION for its health department in the middle of a pandemic.
How could Nakagiri, Drick, Plank, and Smith cast such a short-sighted, let’s-cut-off-our-nose vote knowing that Livingston County ranks in the highest of transmission zones?
Consider, too, that over 60 area doctors signed a letter urging a county-wide mask mandate to protect Livingston County’s students. (You can read WHMI’s reporting on the letter by clicking here.)
For the record, Livingston is currently an island in a sea of other counties — Genesee, Washtenaw, Oakland and Ingham — that have school mask mandates in effect.
Here we are, in the middle of a pandemic. Our medical and public health experts are urging acceptance of the much-needed $1.5 MILLION in COVID relief funding; the numbers support the need for the funding to fight COVID; and news of all the COVID cases in Livingston County classrooms is frightening. Under these circumstances, a normal, well-functioning county commission — one that values and trusts expert analysis, professional opinions, and basic math — would have approved the funding without hesitation.
But that’s not what happened in Livingston County.
Perhaps it’s time to realize that the current board — under the leadership of Nakagiri — is more interested in the culture war du jour than in running the county. Or perhaps it’s time to realize that the current board is easily swayed by residents who don’t know what they don’t know but are loud and persistent nonetheless. While it’s terrible to consider, perhaps it’s time to realize that the current commissioners don’t value the opinion of its medical professionals as much as it fears the wrath of the anti-maskers.
The small but well-organized group of anti-maskers uses calls to the public at local board meetings throughout the county to make known quite loudly their opposition to masks, science be damned. Such was the call to the public the evening the commissioners turned down the $1.5 MILLION, which was dominated by people described by WHMI 93.5 as spreading “COVID misinformation and anti-vaccination talking points,” and painting health department workers as “agents of tyranny” who would be enabled by the COVID relief funds to hunt down the unvaccinated and jab them. (You can read WHMI’s excellent reporting here.)
We have anti-mask people spreading misinformation at calls to the public on one side, and medical professionals — doctors we trust to perform surgeries, prescribe medicine, give emergency treatment, deliver babies, AND TREAT US FOR COVID — on the other, urging a county-wide school mask mandate, and our county board is coming down on the side of the medical know-nothings.
The decision of this board to forego funding for its health department is absolutely breathtaking in its ignorance.
What is convincing me that moves are being made behind the scenes to reign in Mr. Nakagiri’s wild ride is the resolution the board will reconsider on Tuesday to reverse course and accept the $1.5 MILLION in funding, with the caveat that the LCHD will not use any of the money to institute a county-wide mask mandate. What is particularly interesting is that this resolution was reportedly drafted by Commissioner Mitchell Zajac, who voted to accept the $1.5 MILLION in funding without this restriction in the first place.
Some may consider this resolution a “compromise” that will make everyone in Livingston County happy: The health department will get its much-needed $1.5 MILLION to continue its COVID-relief work; anti-maskers will be rewarded for their steady haranguing of public officials; and those on the board who believe any measure to control COVID is governmental overreach will feel justified in their opposition.
But what happens if we need a school mask mandate but can’t put one into effect because of the short-sightedness of our county board? What will our leaders do if COVID numbers continue to rise? What will we do if it becomes impossible for kids to attend classes in person? These are treacherous times, with COVID showing no sign of giving up, and it’s especially difficult for parents of students who are too young for vaccinating, or who have special needs.
This resolution looks to be an attempt on the part of the commissioners to have their cake and eat it too. Rather than based on science, this resolution by all appearances is politically motivated, gobsmackingly short-sighted, and fueled by misinformation.
The commissioners need to accept the $1.5 MILLION without imposing any of their own requirements; they need to step aside so our medical and public health experts can do their jobs. Someone needs to remind the board that its duty is to help the Livingston County Health Department do its job to protect the entire community, not coddle a small-but-loud band of misinformed anti-mask activists.
It also begs the question: If the commissioners can’t handle accepting $1.5 MILLION for COVID-relief efforts, how can we trust them to do the right thing with the $37 MILLION coming their way for infrastructure needs, including broadband internet?