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Ottawa County health officer sues over alleged "philosophical and political" demotion by board

Judge's gavel

The top health official in Ottawa County is suing the county for demoting her.

The lawsuit comes after Ottawa County commissioners signaled they intend to hire another health official who opposed mask mandates during the pandemic. The changes started on January 4, when a new majority took over on the county commission.

Most of the new commissioners were supported by a political action committee called Ottawa Impact. The group was formed in opposition to mask mandates put in place during the pandemic. But its members also signed a contract recognizing America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” and opposed the county’s efforts to promote racial equity.

During the new board members’ first meeting, they fired the top county administrator and top legal counsel and signaled an intention to get rid of the county health officer, Adeline Hambley. In her place, commissioners said they wanted to hire Nathaniel Kelly, a health and safety manager for an HVAC company with no prior experience in public health.

In order to take over as health officer, the state health department would first have to review his credentials to determine if he’s qualified. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said the department hasn’t received any information from the county about Kelly.

In the meantime, commissioners voted to demote the county’s current health officer, Adeline Hambley, to “interim” health officer. Hambley is now suing over the demotion, saying the move violates Michigan law.

“The Health Officer position is not subject to at-will termination as a matter of Michigan law,” the lawsuit says. “[Hambley], as the Health Officer, can only be terminated upon a finding of cause, after notice of the alleged cause and a hearing.”

No such hearing ever took place, and the board, the lawsuit says, never had a cause for terminating Hambley. Instead, the lawsuit claims her demotion was motivated by “philosophical and political” objections to the health officer role. The lawsuit was first reported by the Holland Sentinel. An email to county administrator John Gibbs seeking comment has not yet been returned.

A hearing on the lawsuit is currently scheduled for April.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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