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Judge sides with Ottawa County health officer; issues temporary injunction against board members

Judge's gavel

Adeline Hambley is the health officer for Ottawa County.

That simple-sounding fact was confirmed by a judge on Tuesday, in a ruling that temporarily sided with her in a legal dispute with county commissioners.

Muskegon County Judge Jenny McNeill, who was appointed to oversee Hambley's case against commissioners, issued a preliminary injunction preventing the board from firing Hambley until a trial can be held. In issuing the injunction, McNeill rejected the county’s claim that Hambley had never been fully appointed to the role of health officer. Michigan law spells out when and how county officials can remove a health officer, and Hambley argued commissioners violated that law when they appointed her “interim” county health officer at a meeting in January.

“[A]s a matter of law, Plaintiff was duly appointed as the Ottawa County Health Director,” McNeill wrote in her order.

The dispute between Hambley and board members has its origins in the emergency health orders during the pandemic. A group of parents, angry over mask mandates for schools in Ottawa County, first pushed for the then-county health officer to be fired. When the county received a legal opinion stating that wasn’t possible under Michigan law, the group of parents formed a new political action committee, Ottawa Impact PAC, and successfully took over the majority of seats on the board of commissioners.

At the group’s first meeting after being sworn in, the Ottawa Impact supported board members approved a number of sweeping changes to county policy, including appointing Hambley to “interim” health officer, and hiring a new top attorney for the county. Hambley filed a lawsuit against the county in February, and got a temporary restraining order against the board in March. The county’s new attorney, David Kallman, pushed back, arguing Hambley had never actually been appointed the health officer in the first place, so the “interim” title was not a demotion. Kallman filed to have the case thrown out, and filed for the judge to issue sanctions against Hambley’s attorney, Sarah Riley Howard.

Tuesday, McNeill rejected the call for sanctions, and said Hambley's case has merit.

“As Michigan law does not allow for termination of the health director without a showing of incompetence, misconduct or willful neglect of duty, the Plaintiff is likely to prevail on the merits,” McNeill wrote.

The order extends a temporary restraining order put in place against board members in early March, which prevents them from taking further actions to demote or fire Hambley until the case is settled.

McNeill’s order states that a trial over the claims must happen within six months.

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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