OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County commissioners were expected to vote Monday on whether to fire Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley but instead, after hours of negotiations with her lawyer, voted to accept a settlement recommendation.
Hambley’s attorney, Sarah Howard, said she could not give any further details “until things are finalized,” but she did say Hambley was still the health officer.
“There were settlement discussions today,” Howard said. “Negotiations are always exhausting.”
Commissioners convened at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Building in West Olive and were expected to vote on Hambley’s ouster, but instead voted to go into a closed meeting to discuss ongoing litigation. As the closed meeting involving commissioners, their lawyers and Hambley’s lawyer dragged on for hours, members of the public waited in the commission chambers. The board returned to public session around 5 p.m.
“I move to accept counsel’s recommendation regarding litigation and settlement activities in the case of Hambley v. Ottawa County as addressed during closed session,” Board of Commissioners Chair Joe Moss said.
The motion passed 7-3. Commissioners then moved to recess until Nov. 14 at 9 a.m.
“Wow,” members of the crowd muttered when the meeting concluded.
“Resign, Joe Moss,” said one person.
Howard said the motion for recess until Nov. 14 is because “usually something like that is reduced to writing and a final approval at a board meeting.”
Hambley told News 8 last week she expects to be fired.
“They voted to remove me on Jan. 3, so I think it’s not unexpected,” Hambley said. “What’s unexpected is this delaying and carrying it out and the complete circus we’re operating in right now.”
She said she would do her best to ensure a smooth transition if she is removed.
The hearing started on Oct. 24. After hearing two days’ worth of testimony, commissioners decided to hold off on voting until the following Monday. When they reconvened on Oct. 30, Moss moved to delay the vote again, this time by a week until Monday.
“I believe it’s in the best interest to give everybody enough time to continue reviewing all of the copious amounts of information and answer any questions they have, to recess this meeting a little bit longer,” Moss said at the time.
A document signed by Moss previously laid out a case for why Hambley should lose her job, alleging incompetence, neglect and misconduct in the way she handled and communicated to the press about the recent budgeting process.
Howard worked to show her client’s goal was to make sure her department could continue to function and provide services, trying to demonstrate that Administrator John Gibbs tried to cut Hambley out of the budgeting process. Hambley testified she went to the media because it seemed to her that Gibbs intended to limit the general fund dollars to her department to $2.5 million, which she said would shutter her department. Howard argued Hambley would have been remiss if she had not informed the public of her concerns.
County leaders, including Gibbs, argue it was reckless for Hambley to bring the $2.5 million amount to the public because it spread unwarranted fear.
“Going to the public and going to the press through something that is still in process and not finalized yet, again, I think is highly responsible,” Gibbs said.
The county’s attorney, David Kallman, did not call any of his own witnesses but, in a closing argument, said that the evidence presented by Howard actually showed Hambley was not cut out of the process, pointing out she was copied in a slew of emails about the budget.
Commissioners and Gibbs ultimately decided the health department would get about $4.8 million from the general fund. The health department’s total allocation for the fiscal year, which started last month, was less than the previous year.
Commissioners backed by conservative political action committee Ottawa Impact moved at their first meeting in January to try to replace Hambley. She sued, saying they were violating state law that requires a board to show cause to fire a health officer. The commissioners, in turn, argued that Hambley’s appointment was never finalized, so she isn’t technically the health officer. The Michigan Court of Appeals finally ruled that Hambley was rightfully appointed, but also that the board may fire her if it can prove cause under state law.
County leaders submitted an application to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to approve the appointment of Nathaniel Kelly as the new health officer, but a letter from MDHHS to Gibbs informed him that the agency could not consider Kelly while Hambley kept her job. Kelly, who works as a safety manager at a Grand Rapids heating and cooling system service and repair company, previously criticized COVID-19 mitigation measures like wearing masks and social distancing.