Officials in Detroit suburb rebuke city commissioner who attended stay-at-home protest

Commissioner Kim Gibbs called the move an assault on her freedom of speech.

April 29, 2020, 4:00 AM

City commissioners in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak voted on Tuesday to censure one of their own members after she participated in a rally earlier this month organized in protest of Michigan's strict stay-at-home orders.

The 5-2 vote for an official rebuke of Commissioner Kim Gibbs, one of just two conservatives on the seven-member panel, tracked along ideological lines and came despite the threat of legal action against the town's mayor, Mike Fournier, and other progressive members of the commission.

"She put herself at risk; she put other attendees at the rally at risk," Commissioner Patricia Paruch said of Gibbs. "Her behaviors -- no mask, no physical distancing -- demonstrated disdain and discounting of nationally recommended guidelines."

"It shows either complete and total ignorance of COVID-19 or complete and total indifference to our patients and essential workers," Commissioner Melanie Macey said.

Just prior to the vote condemning her actions, Gibbs called the move an "assault" on her constitutional freedoms of speech and free assembly.

"Even though I violated no laws or rules promulgated by the governor, Mayor Fournier and the commission majority wish to destroy my reputation, my livelihood in my political career," Gibbs said.

Gibbs is facing no further action from the city commission, and the censure vote amounts to not much more than an official reprimand.

The controversy over Gibbs' participation in the rally erupted locally after some Royal Oak residents spotted her in the background of local TV news coverage of the April 15 rally in Lansing, about 80 miles from Royal Oak.

Advertised as a drive-thru protest, thousands of cars jammed the streets around the capitol building to rail against the restrictions enacted by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to control the spread of COVID-19 in the state, one of the hardest-hit by the virus.

Royal Oak City Commissioner Kim Gibbs in a photo from her Facebook account.
Royal Oak City Commissioner Kim Gibbs/Facebook

But not everyone stayed in their cars. Video captured by a local Fox TV crew shows Gibbs among those on the sidewalk outside the state capitol, without a face covering. And to at least some observers, Gibbs appeared to be close enough to others to be in violation of the social-distancing mandates of state emergency decrees.

Not long after, Fournier publicly accused Gibbs of violating lawful state emergency orders and called for her resignation.

Gibbs refused. In an interview with a local reporter after the rally, she claimed to have been in Lansing only to observe.

She also drastically downplayed the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

"In my eyes, the scare on the coronavirus is over," Gibbs told the Royal Oak Tribune. "I'm not a doctor, but my personal belief is that the people who got it, or are going to get it, have already gotten it, so let's get back to work."

In the city of about 58,000 residents, there are 245 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 22 have died.

Royal Oak residents, according to Paruch, soon began contacting commission members to express outrage at Gibbs' behavior. "I personally received over 60 emails. I have never received that many emails in my entire career," she said in an interview Tuesday.

The city commission hearing, conducted remotely, was gaveled in on Monday evening by Fournier and then went on for nearly six hours. The censure vote came at 1:20 a.m., after the commissioners listened to recorded messages from nearly 100 city residents expressing their viewpoints.

PHOTO: People hold flags and placards as hundreds of supporters of the Michigan Conservative Coalition protest against the state's extended stay-at-home order, April 15, 2020.
People hold flags and placards as hundreds of supporters of the Michigan Conservative Coalition protest against the state's extended stay-at-home order, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, at the Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., April 15, 2020.
Seth Herald/Reuters

At the most recent prior commission meeting, Fournier said, there was just one public comment.

"This was unprecedented. This is a multiple of what we typically get," Fournier said in an interview on Tuesday.

"I am embarrassed, disheartened and saddened," said one woman who spoke in favor of censuring Gibbs.

"Miss Gibbs should be ashamed of the choices she made. She needs to go," said another.

Of the 100 calls, the vast majority supported the measure to condemn Gibbs' behavior, but some took the time to register their support of Gibbs and their displeasure with the commission's majority, whose motives some callers viewed as partisan.

"This is ridiculous," one man said. "They are just using bullying tactics. She did not do anything to harm anybody."

Gibbs' lone ally on the panel, Commissioner Randy LeVasseur, echoed those who viewed the reprimand as motivated by politics.

"This was an opportunity that they saw, that they helped create. And they seized upon it as an opportunity to try to take out a political adversary," LeVasseur told ABC News.

But for some of the residents who called in to share their views, Gibbs' actions represented a lack of respect for the front-line workers living and working locally. The city is home to Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak, which has often been at the epicenter of Michigan's battle against the virus.

A woman who identified herself as an anesthesiologist said she called to express "deep concern" with Gibbs' behavior and her public comments diminishing the ongoing crisis.

"For the past seven weeks, my colleagues in anesthesia have been tirelessly putting their own safety at risk to care for members of our community with the COVID virus," she said. "Thousands of lives remain at stake. COVID-19 is not gone. COVID-19 remains an ever-present threat to our community's health and safety."

Another caller said he was a physician spending most of his clinical time "putting breathing tubes in patients with the COVID-19 virus. In more than 30 years of practice I have never seen a more ravaging disease."

"The vast majority, if you listen to the public comment, they're outright embarrassed about the behavior of Commissioner Gibbs," Fournier said. "So I think for our residents, this was an importantmeasure to close the issue, to show her behavior does not represent a vast majority of the people of our vibrant, compassionate community."

Gibbs did not return a request for comment. Nor did a spokesperson for the non-profit legal center that announced its intention, before the vote, to sue the commission in federal court on her behalf.

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