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Confused about where things stand in Ottawa County health officer case? Here are some answers.

Adeline Hambley, Ottawa County, Mich., health officer, poses for a portrait outside of the county administration building, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in West Olive, Mich. The top health official in one of Michigan’s largest counties is asking a judge to uphold a $4 million settlement in exchange for Hambley's resignation, coming after months of conflict with local conservative leaders who were elected in response to COVID-19 restrictions. (AP Photo/Kristen Norman, File)
Kristen Norman/AP
Adeline Hambley, Ottawa County, Mich., health officer, poses for a portrait outside of the county administration building, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in West Olive, Mich. The top health official in one of Michigan’s largest counties is asking a judge to uphold a $4 million settlement in exchange for Hambley's resignation, coming after months of conflict with local conservative leaders who were elected in response to COVID-19 restrictions. (AP Photo/Kristen Norman, File)

This week, a Muskegon county judge heard the latest arguments in a legal case between the Ottawa County health officer and the county board — a dispute that has been going on now for more than 11 months.

At the heart of the dispute is a majority of county commissioners all elected after opposing emergency health orders during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a health officer, Adeline Hambley, fighting for her job.

Hambley sued the board in February after commissioners voted to demote her to “interim” health officer. But since then the dispute has taken a number of confusing twists and turns.

One person who’s been tracking every development since the start is reporter Sarah Leach from The Holland Sentinel. She joined Stateside to help us sort out where things stand, and what may come next.

You can click above to hear the conversation, or read below to get answers to some of the basic questions in the case so far.

Why did county commissioners try to demote Adeline Hambley in the first place? 

“They’ve never given a specific reason,” Sarah Leach said.

Over the course of the year, a number of reasons have come forward, in particular, board chair Joe Moss accused Hambley of neglecting her duties during the department’s budget discussions earlier this year. Those accusations formed the basis of removal hearings the county initiated against Hambley in October.

But those accusations came months after commissioners first voted to demote Hambley.

She had only been in the job for about three weeks when that vote happened, and though she had worked in the department, she wasn’t responsible for the emergency orders during the pandemic that angered many residents.

Still, Leach said that anger motivated the entire slate of Ottawa Impact candidates, and their disillusion with the health department likely led to the clash with Hambley.

“This particular group, before it became known as Ottawa Impact, many of its members organized a parent protest in front of the former Ottawa County Board of Commissioners and demanded that that former board fire the health officer that at that time had been with the county for several years.”

And while that health officer resigned before the Ottawa Impact members could be sworn into office, Leach said the initial opposition to the health department likely played a role in their attempts to demote and remove Hambley.

Adeline Hambley filed a lawsuit against the county over her demotion in February. What’s the latest in that case? 

The case is still open, and there was another hearing this week about it. Initially, Hambley’s suit alleged commissioners failed to follow state law when they voted to demote her. The county responded at the time that Hambley had never actually been named health officer by the previous board. The State Court of Appeals rejected the county’s argument and sided with Hambley. But it said that the county board still could remove Hambley if the board followed state law — which requires a public hearing and a finding that the health officer is incompetent, or that they neglected their duties or engaged in misconduct.

The board initiated a removal hearing against Hambley in October. Board chair Joe Moss released a document accusing Hambley of misconduct, neglect and incompetence during the budget process.

But after two full days of testimony, board members decided not to vote on removal, and instead have been deliberating in closed sessions.

“They kept on delaying and delaying an outcome and finally they decided to try to negotiate with Hambley and her attorney for a settlement,” Leach said.

On November 6, commissioners came out of a closed session and voted to “accept counsel’s recommendation regarding litigation and settlement activities in the case of Hambley v. Ottawa County as addressed during closed session.”

Hambley’s attorneys said the vote was to accept a settlement agreement to resolve Hambley’s legal case. Hambley’s attorney, Sarah Riley Howard, said that agreement was to pay Hambley $4 million to resign. But after Leach published a story in The Holland Sentinel detailing the settlement terms, the board backtracked, according to a court filing from Riley Howard.

The county’s attorney, meanwhile, says there never was an agreement, and the board vote was only to continue negotiations.

“It’s laughable,” county attorney David Kallman told Michigan Radio. “There was no agreement to back out of.”

Because the discussions were held during closed sessions, it’s difficult to know for sure what was meant by the vote on November 6.

This week, a Muskegon County judge held a hearing to get to the bottom of it. “The judge seemed pretty skeptical” of the county’s arguments, Leach said. But at the end of the hearing, the judge asked to privately review the minutes of the closed session in which the settlement discussions happened, and she agreed to hold another hearing, scheduled for January 19.

At that hearing, Hambley’s attorney is likely to call individual county board members to testify on what they meant when they voted on November 6.

What about the county’s removal hearing? Could they still vote to remove Hambley?

Short answer: yes.

State law allows county commissioners to remove a health officer following a hearing, if commissioners have found a cause for that removal.

While commissioners seem to have been delaying a removal vote while they worked on a settlement agreement during closed sessions, Leach said they could still reconvene and remove Hambley.

Technically, the removal hearings for Hambley that began in late October are still open. Commissioners never formally closed the hearing. They’ve just been on recess.

“They could reconvene,” Leach said. “They could take a vote.”

But for now it seems commissioners would rather wait to see how the case plays out in court before making any big decisions. Because even if they did have the votes to remove Hambley, that decision would likely just end up back in court anyway, Leach pointed out.

What about the person commissioners said they want to name as health officer — Nathan Kelly? 

When commissioners first voted to demote Hambley in January (a vote that was overturned by the State Court of Appeals) they also named the person they want to install as health officer.

Nathan Kelly is an industrial hygienist with no previous experience working in a county health department. But he was an outspoken critic of mask mandates and other health orders issued during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, MLive obtained emails from the human resource director in Ottawa County who argued Kelly isn’t qualified for the job of health officer.

Before a health officer can be appointed, their credentials must be sent to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. But MDHHS said it wouldn’t consider Kelly’s credentials while Hambley is still in place as health officer.

“Unless she resigns or is removed, they’re not going to answer either way,” Leach told us.

The lack of clarity around his qualifications just raises more doubts about whether Kelly can ever be installed as the county’s health officer, Leach said.

How have county residents responded as the case has played out? 

“I think that there’s a lot of exhaustion,” Sarah Leach said.

She said the engagement at county board meetings has fallen since the summer when hundreds of people would show up to offer public comments.

But even as the case over Hambley drags on, many are still engaged in either supporting or opposing the Ottawa Impact commissioners. And while no challengers have officially filed yet to take back their seats in 2024, Leach said she expects there will be a lot more action in the year ahead.

“I think that 2024 is going to be one of the most engaged local elections that the county has ever witnessed,” Leach said.

A.J. Jones contributed reporting to this story.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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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