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Official alleges politics interfering with health decisions in Ottawa County

Judge's gavel

The top health official in Ottawa County says politics are getting in the way of health services. It’s the latest allegation in a lawsuit filed against the county by Adeline Hambley, who currently serves as interim health officer for the county. She’s suing a group of county commissioners for what she says was an illegal demotion to the interim role.

Hambley is now asking a judge to issue an injunction against the county board, to prevent its members from interfering in her job.

“Defendants have continued to unlawfully and significantly interfere with Plaintiff’s ability to carry out the duties and statutory powers of the Health Officer,” Hambley’s attorney argues in a filing submitted late last week. “Defendants have actively worked against Plaintiff to hold up what should be routine contracts and without regard for damage with County relationships with community partners and, in some cases, the County’s contractual and other legal obligations.”

The filing cites one example of a contract for dental services being held up because of concerns over the contract’s anti-discrimination provisions.

“This was because the anti-discrimination provision of the extension agreement included sexual orientation and gender identity as bases upon which discrimination against program recipients was prohibited,” the legal filing alleges.

The legal battle over health policy in the county stems from the political sea change on the county’s board of commissioners that happened earlier this year when a group of nine commissioners — who at one point were all aligned with a single political action committee — took office. They’d been supported by the Ottawa Impact PAC, which was formed by a group of citizens angry over emergency school mask mandates imposed by the county health office in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the first meeting of the year, those commissioners voted to appoint Hambley to the role of interim health officer and signaled their intention to hire Nathan Kelly, an industrial hygienist with no background in public health, as the full time health officer.

In her lawsuit, Hambley points out that Michigan law protects health officers. County boards can only fire them after a hearing, which didn’t happen in Ottawa County.

In response to the claims, the county argued that Hambley was never appointed health officer in the first place. The county said the previous board members voted in December to appoint her to health officer, pending approval by the state. Because that approval didn’t come until after the board voted, and the board never voted a second time, the county said Hambley was only ever the interim health officer.

“This case is predicated on Plaintiff’s false assertion that she has been appointed permanent Ottawa County Health Officer,” the county argued in court filing seeking to have Hambley’s case thrown out. “She is not and never has been.”

The county also pushed back against the claims of political interference in the health officer’s role.

“Plaintiff’s extensive mental gymnastics is a desperate attempt to conjure up some basis to justify her allegations of interference by Defendants,” the county wrote in its response to the allegations.

David Kallman, the attorney representing the county, said the current dental services contract is still in place until October 1, and board members have a right to oversee contracts.

The two sides are scheduled to be in court on Friday for a hearing to decide whether to issue the injunction against the county.

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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