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Top health official in Ottawa County gets restraining order against county, commissioners


The top health official for Ottawa County has gotten a temporary restraining order against the county.

It’s the latest in a legal battle between newly elected conservative members of the Ottawa County board who opposed emergency pandemic orders, and the health official, Adeline Hambley.

Last month, Hambley filed a lawsuitagainst the county, arguing she was illegally demoted by the new board members, who voted to appoint her as “interim” health officer. The board members were all elected with the support of the Ottawa Impact PAC, the group that originally formed in opposition to mask mandates in schools.

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

In response, the county’s top attorney — who was hired at the first board meeting this year under new commissioners, with no prior public notice — said Hambley had never actually been appointed to the role of health officer in the first place, because the previous board of commissioners’ vote to appoint her was contingent on her passing a background check, receiving approval from the state to fill the role, and getting the board of commissioners' approval.

That final contingency — board approval — did not appear as a separate item on the final resolution about approving Hambley for the role on December 13 last year. But this week, commissioners voted to add it to the resolution, in a move that suggests Hambley would have needed a second vote from the board in order to officially become the health officer.

County attorney Jack Jordan said the change to the resolution was merely meant to reflect what was actually said at the December 13 meeting.

“The resolution that was drafted … does not reflect the minutes, or the motion,” Jordan told the new commissioners. “It was an error.”

But commissioners who’d served on the previous board said they disagreed.

“I read the resolution. I have the resolution from the 13. We voted on the resolution. I don’t see the error in the resolution,” said commissioner Doug Zylstra.

The new resolution quotes from what was said in December 13 meeting, when then-commissioner Philip Kuyers made the motion to approve Hambley as Health Officer:

“I'd like to make the motion to approve and authorize the board chairperson and clerk register to sign a resolution to appoint Adeline Hambley as the county administrative health officer, contingent upon approval by the board of commissioners, confirmation by the Michigan Department of Health and Human services that she has the required educational certificates and work background, and successfully passing the county's background check process.”

“I believe it’s a pretty big Hail Mary. I don’t think it’s going to land. And I believe it’s probably going to land us in harder situations going forward.”
Ottawa County Commissioner Kyle Terpstra, on the move to change a previously approved resolution on the health officer role.

Kuyers is no longer on the Ottawa County board of commissioners, but he addressed the current board members in public comments at this week’s meeting.

“I just want to go on the record as saying that when I made the motion on December 13 to install Adeline Hambley, that it was unanimous between all the commissioners and we had no intention of voting again to install her,” Kuyers said. “She was installed once, and that’s where she belongs.”

Some of the new commissioners on the board also questioned the move to change a resolution that had been passed by previous board members, and voted against the change.

“I think all of us up here as commissioners understand why this was brought to us,” said commissioner Kyle Terpstra, who is among the new commissioners on the board. “I believe it’s a pretty big Hail Mary. I don’t think it’s going to land. And I believe it’s probably going to land us in harder situations going forward.”

The board did approve changing the previous resolution, in a 6-5 vote.

Hambley’s attorney cited the vote in the request for a restraining order against the county, and argued the vote to change the resolution was itself illegal retaliation for filing the lawsuit.

Judge Jenny McNeill, who serves in Muskegon County, but was assigned to oversee the Ottawa County case, signed the restraining order and said it would be in effect until the first hearing over the lawsuit. That hearing is scheduled for March 13 in Muskegon.

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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