Fennville commissioner's links to controversial Proud Boys group splits town

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Fennville — The Fennville City Commission was tickled when Morgan Bolles applied for a commission opening in November.

It’s hard to find people interested in the board, but Bolles had attended meetings since July, taking notes, asking questions.

And, at 32, he was younger than the other commissioners. He would be a breath of fresh air, they said.

Newly appointed Fennville City Commissioner Morgan Bolles reads through city billings during a recent Fennville City Commission meeting .

Bolles, one of two candidates, was selected to fill the vacancy in the western Michigan community southwest of Grand Rapids.

Then all hell broke loose.

Within a week of the Dec. 2 appointment, it was discovered Bolles has a long criminal record and belongs to the Proud Boys, which several civil rights organizations describe as a hate group.

Fennville’s population of 1,800 is 51% Hispanic.

“This is a very diverse community — economically, culturally, socially,” said former Mayor Dan Rastall. “There’s no room for hatred.”

The blindsided commission can’t do anything about the two-year appointment. It doesn’t have the power to remove a member.

If residents want to recall Bolles, they have to wait one year, according to state law.

That’s if residents want to recall him.

Joseph Oakman and fellow Proud Boys plant a flag in Tom McCall Waterfront Park during an "End Domestic Terrorism" rally in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.  (FILE)

Residents divided

While some are repulsed by the commissioner’s connection to the neo-fascist group, others aren’t so chagrined.

Bolles has received as much support as opposition at commission meetings and in social media.

Supporters said they like his conservative views and don’t believe what the media and civil rights groups have reported about the Proud Boys.

“As far as not being very PC, the president of the United States isn’t very PC,” said resident Jay Columbus. “He said worse things than Morgan, and he’s the president.”

The Proud Boys is a male-only group that describes its members as Western chauvinists, according to its website.

It promotes violence and argues white men and Western culture are under siege, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was started in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice Media and Vice magazine.

Members have displayed overt or implicit racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny, said the SPLC and Anti-Defamation League.

But Bolles said he doesn’t hate anyone and doesn’t oppose any group based on race, religion or gender.

He told The Detroit News he was attracted to the Proud Boys because of the group's belief in personal liberty. It supports limited government, gun rights, free markets and property rights.

“People have the right to live however they want to,” he said in a phone interview. “We shouldn’t be telling them what to do with their lives.”

During a Second Amendment rally in Lansing in September, Bolles wore a T-shirt with the picture of a limp-wristed Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, according to photos he posted on Twitter.

“Socialism is for f-gs,” it read, with the last word missing a letter.

This is a view of the shops along the business district on Main Street in Fennville, Michigan.

Other photos showed him flashing an OK gesture, which has been used by the alt-right to show support for white supremacy and used ironically by conservatives to get a rise from progressives.

During the interview, Bolles said “f-gs” stood for figs, and the OK gesture meant he was cordial with the people standing next to him in the photo, members of the Michigan Socialist Rifle Association.

As for his criminal record, Bolles was charged with four assaults, at least three involving women, from 2006 to 2015, according to court records.

He was acquitted in one case, pleaded guilty in a second and pleaded to lesser charges in the other two, the records show.

The Proud Boys view women as subservient to men, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

They also have been involved in violent clashes with Antifa, a left-wing group that shares their taste for physical confrontation.

FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2019 file photo, members of the Proud Boys and other right-wing demonstrators march across the Hawthorne Bridge during an "End Domestic Terrorism" rally in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. The group includes organizer Joe Biggs, in green hat, and Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio, holding megaphone.

How controversy started

Fennville, conservative and working class, shows few traces of its large Hispanic population.

A tortilla bakery sits in the three-block downtown while a Spanish-speaking church is located in a residential neighborhood.

No Hispanic has ever served on the city commission.

When Danielle Brien announced in November that she was leaving the board to tend to her private job, Bolles and Chuck Pappalardo applied for the opening.

They filled out an application that asked just two questions: What were their qualifications and how would their service benefit the city.

Joseph Oakman, a member of the Proud Boys, wears body armor during an "End Domestic Terrorism" rally in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.   (FILE)

Interviewed by the commission in December, the process lasted 20 to 30 minutes and involved a half dozen questions, said residents and city officials.

On Pappalardo’s application, he described how he had built an executive search firm from scratch outside San Francisco, served on numerous nonprofit boards, moved to Fennville, bought a local bed and breakfast that blossomed under his guidance, and used the profits to bring a national literacy program to the local elementary school, which employs it in every grade.

His application was 1,007 words.

Bolles’ application, which was 52 words, said he was studying for a bachelor’s degree in business and would bring a younger perspective to the board.

“I have a passion to serve the public,” he wrote.

The commission was much more familiar with Pappalardo, but not in a good way.

By his own admission, Pappalardo is a contentious figure who constantly squabbled with the mayor about snow removal near his B&B and argued with a commissioner to the point where the board member obtained a personal protection order against him.

This is a view of the Main Street business district in Fennville, Michigan.

Fallout in Fennville

The seven-member commission voted unanimously to appoint Bolles to the open seat.

Five days later, the commission was red-faced when an online group called Vigilant Anti-Fascist Action retweeted the Lansing rally photos. The pictures also showed him carrying a flag for the Michigan chapter of the Proud Boys.

And then the commission got angry. Members said Bolles should have been upfront about his past.

“Morgan didn’t step forward and say, ‘I have some negative things. I want you to be aware that, if you appoint me, all heck could break loose,” said commissioner Jim Hayden.

Fennville City Commissioner Jim Hayden participates in a discussion about the sale of city property during a recent meeting.

He said Bolles should resign and run in the next election. Now that residents know his background, they can decide whether they still want him to be in office, he said.

Hayden also considered quitting, he said. He felt ashamed for voting in favor of Bolles, and didn’t want to serve on a board with such a person.

“I was part of the group that appointed him. I can’t apologize enough,” he said.

Bolles said he never tried to hide his background. He said he had limited conversations with commissioners and they never asked about his past.

He said he wouldn’t step down.

“Not even close,” he said.

Some residents were upset with the board for making such an appointment. They said the commission needs to come up with a procedure to ensure it never happens again.

The commission just needs to do more research, Pappalardo said. He said he learned all about Bolles by doing a five-minute search on Google.

In his view, the appointment was more a vote against him than a vote in favor of Bolles.

“It tells you something,” said Pappalardo. “They voted unanimously for a guy they didn’t know anything about.”

The Fennville water tower stands on the east side of Fennville, Michigan.

City Hall engulfed

The small room in the small city hall has only 10 chairs, which is too many for most commission meetings.

Not on Dec. 16.

After word of Bolles’ background had spread around town, 50 people attended the meeting, lining the walls and spilling into the hallway.

The commission had to borrow a podium from Fennville Public Schools, said city officials. The mayor’s gavel had to be dug out of storage.

Sergio Reyes, a Hispanic landscaper who attended the meeting, later told The News he had looked into the Proud Boys and learned they have an initiation process, wear similar clothes and fight at demonstrations.

This is Fennville's City Hall.

He said they sound like a gang, one that takes a dim view of minorities.

“I don’t want their influence on the town,” he said. “I wish they weren’t here at all.”

While some are aghast at Bolles’ appointment, others aren’t worried.

Brandon Kury, who owns Smoke’N Joe BBQ catering, defended Bolles at the meeting. He told The News that everything he knows about the Proud Boys came from other people, which makes the info suspect.

Asked if he tried to learn about the group on his own, he said he knows a member (not Bolles) who has a Hispanic wife, so he doubts it’s a hate group.

“I don’t really listen to hearsay,” he said. “I go on what I know.”

Robert E. Lee, who owns Cool Stuff antique shop, said just because someone belongs to a hate group doesn’t mean he will do anything hateful in Fennville.

Fennville Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Suerth gives a report on city services during a recent meeting.

If Bolles steps out of line, plenty of people are ready to slap him down, said Lee, who may have been named after the Civil War general, according to one family story.

“It sounds like much ado about nothing,” he said. “He’s trying to step up and do something in the community. That’s more than I do.”

As the debate jumped from the commission meeting to social media, the Proud Boys held a food drive for a local food bank.

Kyle Smith, a Proud Boy member who is close friends with Bolles, said the group would be holding many more charitable events in the future.

“Fennville is going to be seeing a lot from the Proud Boys,” Smith wrote on Facebook.

Mayor Tom Pantelleria said he’s all in favor of charity but was dubious about the group’s motives.

“I would be kind of wary,” he said. “Good things don’t wipe clean the bad they represent,” Pantelleria said. 

During a Second Amendment rally in Lansing in September, Morgan Bolles wears a T-shirt with the picture of a limp-wristed Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, that reads "Socialism is for f-gs," with the last word missing a letter.

Life before elected office

Bolles, who grew up in Fennville, served six years in the Army National Guard, spending a year in Iraq.

He was a heavy drinker who was charged with drunken driving in 2007 and 2011, pleading guilty in the second case and to lesser charges in the first, according to court records.

He hasn’t had a driver’s license since 2013, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office.

He got married in June and is working on his college degree.

“I’ve been striving to become a better person for the last few years,” he said.

Given the Proud Boys’ belief in limited government, Bolles’ desire to serve on the city commission confused some residents. Would he be discouraging the board from doing its job, they wondered.

He said the group isn’t opposed to the government regulating roads or water and sewer services. What it opposes are elected officials getting involved in issues like abortion.

Bolles has already accomplished one of his goals in joining the commission — getting residents more involved in the community.

Since his appointment, more people have begun attending commission meetings, officials said.

Among the opponents are Mari Solis, a Hispanic medical assistant. She is worried Bolles’ appointment is part of a plan to expand the Proud Boys’ influence in the small town.

Solis said she plans to keep an eye on him to prevent that from happening.

“Everyone in Fennville is like, ‘Give him a chance and we’re no one to judge,’” she said. “Regardless how they want to defend (the Proud Boys), it is known for violence. It’s just bad news.”


Twitter: @francisXdonnell