OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County commissioners listened to testimony Tuesday in a hearing to decide whether they will fire the county’s top health official.
The hearing for Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley’s removal started at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the County Administration Building in West Olive and wrapped up for the day shortly after 2:30 p.m.
Testimony was expected to resume Wednesday at 8 a.m., with commissioners hearing from Hambley herself and County Administrator John Gibbs, Hambley’s lawyer said. That will be followed by public comment, debate among commissioners and potentially a vote.
A document signed by Commission Chair Joe Moss has already laid out county leaders’ case for why she should be terminated, alleging misconduct in the way she handled and communicated to the press about the recent budget process, which saw fewer dollars than last year allocated to her department.
Commissioners brought in a retired judge to oversee the hearing, in which lawyers on both sides gave opening statements, called witnesses and cross-examined them like a trial.
Sarah Howard, Hambley’s attorney, called several witnesses to testify as she attempted to show that Hambley’s actions were not incompetent or neglectful and that Hambley was concerned about the functioning of her department. Some of her questions also attempted to show that conservative commissioners who took office earlier this year never wanted Hambley to be health officer.
Former Ottawa County Administrator John Shay, who was fired by the newly-elected commissioners in their first meeting in January and replaced by Gibbs, a former Trump administration employee and Republican candidate for Congress, testified that then-Commissioners-elect Joe Moss and Sylvia Rhodea were upset that Hambley was going to be appointed health officer in December.
“They felt that the incoming board should make that decision and not the outgoing board,” Shay said.
Moss and Rhodea co-founded conservative political action committee Ottawa Impact, which backed many of the new commissioners who took office in January. Moss got involved in county politics after the county health department shut down his kids’ school for ignoring pandemic-era mask mandates.
Patrick Waterman, a former deputy county administrator who served under Shay and later resigned from working under Gibbs, testified that in at least one instance, he said, he was uninvited to a meeting involving Gibbs and Hambley. When he asked Gibbs why, Gibbs told him it was so he could speak frankly with Hambley, which Waterman found concerning. He said when he did interact with Gibbs and Hambley together, Hambley was “courteous” and demonstrated care that the health department be run well.
But much of Howard’s questioning of Waterman was more about Gibbs’ leadership and his relationship with commissioners than it was about Hambley. Waterman testified to his “challenges with communication” with Gibbs on day-to-day operations.
Asked about the hiring Jordan Epperson as a senior executive aide for Gibbs, Waterman pointed to some concerns he had about Epperson’s resume and interview answers. But Gibbs, Waterman said, preferred Epperson over another candidate that Waterman and other leaders would have liked to hire.
Waterman testified that Gibbs was worried about not going along with what Commissioners Moss and Rhodea wanted. He noted Gibbs had some complaints about the county’s counsel, David Kallman, that he felt commissioners were not heeding.
Waterman said in some “candid” one-on-one conversations, Gibbs would express concerns about standing up to the board.
“He would often use the phrase, and I think other employees heard him say this, that he didn’t want to end up at the bottom of a river,” Waterman said, explaining he took that to mean that that Gibbs was worried that “if he didn’t follow the directives of the board to a T, that his job would be in jeopardy.”
County Clerk Justin Roebuck and Human Resources Director Marcie Ver Beek were among those who testified as the hearing got underway in the morning. Roebuck was asked about the resolution Ottawa Impact commissioners made in their first meeting in January to move Hambley to interim health officer. Ver Beek testified about several topics, including the hiring of Epperson.
Fiscal services director Karen Karasinski, who reports to Gibbs, and Nina Baranowski, the county finance manager assigned to the public health department, reviewed emails and text messages and answered questions regarding the budgeting process, with Howard trying to show that Gibbs’ initial request that Hambley hold her department’s budget to $2.5 million from the general fund was not reasonable.
Hambley said publicly at the time that a $2.5 million limit would cause her department to close. Commissioners and Gibbs ultimately decided the health department would get about $4.8 million for the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.
Howard also questioned Spencer Ballard, the environmental health manager for Ottawa County, trying to show that Hambley has been committed to running her department correctly.
In cross-examination of Hambley’s witnesses, the board’s lawyer, Kallman, attempted to show that the health department’s budget was not dealt with any differently than any other agency. He also worked to disprove Howard’s claims that Gibbs tried to cut Hambley out of budget conversations, saying it was Hambley who refused to cooperate.
“I was very pleased with the testimony that came out,” Kallman told News 8 after the hearing. “Karen (Karasinski, the fiscal services director) affirmed what’s alleged in the charges.”
He specifically pointed to Karasinski’s testimony that Gibbs never told her to leave Hambley out of the process.
On Monday, a circuit court judge denied a motion to stay the hearing for removal, saying she did not believe she had the authority to do so.
“We don’t have to present witnesses. This (hearing) isn’t for us to present evidence. It’s for Ms. Hambley. We’re giving her the opportunity. We don’t want to take up her time. She wanted two full days,” Kallman said.
Asked about the testimony from Shay and Waterman, Kallman said it has nothing to do with Hambley.
“All this other stuff, they’re just throwing stuff up on the wall,” he said. “It’s meaningless. I could care less. It doesn’t exonerate Ms. Hambley.”
A legal battle between Hambley and Ottawa Impact-backed commissioners who moved in their first meeting to oust her has been ongoing for most of the year. She argued 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. Earlier this month, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that Hambley was rightfully appointed, but also that the board may fire her if it can prove cause under state law.
Paul Klimas, the Ottawa County information technology director, testified during Tuesday’s hearing that he had never received nor implemented any litigation holds on data in reference to Hambley’s lawsuit against the county.
In January, commissioners said Nathaniel Kelly would replace Hambley, but it was only this month that the county submitted an application to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to approve his appointment. A letter from MDHHS Interim Senior Duty Director Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo to Gibbs on Monday informed him that the agency could not consider Kelly while Hambley remained on the job.
“The Michigan Administrative Code R 325.13008 requires that in order for an acting health officer to be appointed, a vacancy must exist. At the time of this review, there is no vacancy, as the position is occupied by an individual who is qualified, full time, and permanent,” Lyon-Callo wrote.
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.
— News 8’s Byron Tollefson and Michael Oszust contributed to this report.