OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A hearing continued Wednesday as Ottawa County commissioners consider whether or not to fire the county’s top health official, with several hours of testimony from Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley and Administrator John Gibbs about how this year’s budgeting process played out.
The hearing for Hambley’s removal at the County Administration Building in West Olive stretched through Tuesday and Wednesday, with nearly 14 hours of total testimony. That was followed by closing arguments from attorneys, after which there was debate among commissioners and public comment.
Members then voted to recess until 8 a.m. Monday, at which point they will vote on whether to remove Hambley.
During the time for debate, Commissioners Doug Zylstra of Holland, the board’s only Democrat, Roger Bergman and Jacob Bonnema seemed to signal support for Hambley.
“Do you know what truth is? Do any of you even care?” Bergman, a Republican from the Tri-Cities area who is not backed by conservative political action committee Ottawa Impact, said. “If you hear lies long enough, there is no truth. Each of you will have to answer on that today based on how you vote. Most of the public, citizens, know what truth is. The question is, do you know what the truth is?”
Bonnema, who represents the Holland Township and Zeeland areas, said in his experience, Hambley has been a fair person.
“If you failed at anything during this process, it’s not being part of their club,” said Bonnema, who previously cut ties with Ottawa Impact, citing concerns about transparency. “And I think that’s troubling because you want to be apolitical, you want to be fair to both sides. And I think that’s admirable.”
Comments from Ottawa Impact-backed Commissioners Gretchen Cosby, who represents Port Sheldon, Park and Olive townships; Allison Miedema, who represents the northeast part of the county; Roger Belknap of the Grand Haven area; Vice Chair and Ottawa Impact co-founder Sylvia Rhodea from Allendale Township; and Commission Chair and Ottawa Impact co-founder Joe Moss, who represents the Hudsonville and Jamestown Township area, seemed to indicate they would vote against Hambley.
A document signed by Moss previously laid out county leaders’ 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 budget.
During debate, Moss said the evidence he heard over the course of the hearing did not dispute the charges in that document and indeed supported them.
“I also think that process had been an issue, especially during August and September, because apparently Ms. Hambley didn’t like the process that was being used. We extended the finance meetings, added additional deliberation, but I keep hearing that that wasn’t appreciated,” Moss said.
He said the charges were filed because they were warranted after the events of the budgeting process.
“They are a direct correlation, a reaction to, a result of the actions of Ms. Hambley,” Moss said.
Bonnema retorted Moss has been trying to get rid of Hambley since January, when the board voted to remove her from the permanent role.
Moss and Cosby said Hambley’s claims that the health department would close if limited to a $2.5 million general fund contribution were “inflammatory” and asserted something that would never happen.
Miedema said she disagreed with Hambley’s claims that her actions were meant to serve the people of the county, saying instead they “disaparg(ed)” people. She said Hambley’s statements misled the general public who didn’t understand the budget process and caused fear.
Rhodea suggested Hambley’s messaging was made “without good intent” and said what she took from the evidence was that there was a lack of honesty.
“The lack of honesty was a real problem which led us to where we are today,” Rhodea said.
Rhodea agreed feedback was appropriate, but said “fearmongering” and “scaring families that they’re going to have no services” was a problem.
“There needs to be a level of trust and honesty (with the health officer), so that we know that we can rely on that person when they do come to us and there’s something that we do need to take seriously,” Rhodea said. “And so if we don’t have truth happening in that position and if we have fearmongering happening in that position, the next time around, when there truly is a public health threat, we’re not going to trust this person.”
But Zylstra argued without the public input prompted by Hambley, the board would not have wound up with the budget it ultimately approved.
Cosby raised concerns about the timeline of Hambley’s installation as health officer, suggesting the former board and administrator rushed her appointment before the incoming board could take office. She said she was seeking information about that role after her election but before taking office, but didn’t know until after it happened that Hambley was going to get the job.
Commissioner Rebekah Curran, a Republican from Georgetown Township who previously stepped away from Ottawa Impact, acknowledged Cosby’s concerns, but also suggested something had to change.
“It’s almost like one side is making bad decision and bad calls, and now the other side is making bad decisions and bad calls, and we’re all using each other’s poor behavior to excuse our own, and I don’t think that is the way we should behave,” she said.
She said she wanted to move forward and open up lines of communication.
Cosby suggested she wanted a recess to have some time to consider everything she had heard over the previous two days. Moss said he would be willing to accept a motion to recess after public comment, which he did. The motion passed unanimously.
Howard said she believed postponing the vote was “largely performative.”
“I don’t think there’s anybody on that board that doesn’t already know how they’re voting. I think to drag it out is really more of a disservice to the community,” she said.
Commissioner Kyle Terpstra, a Republican who is not affiliated with Ottawa Impact and who represents part of Georgetown Township, did not attend either day of the removal hearing.
TESTIMONY FROM HAMBLEY
During testimony Wednesday, Hambley said she went to the media because it seemed to her that Gibbs, the county administrator, intended to limit the general fund dollars to her department to $2.5 million, which she said would shutter her department.
She said she felt as though she was being intentionally kept out of budget discussions. Though Gibbs was interacting with the fiscal services director, Hambley said, that person does not have public health programming expertise.
“There were numerous conversations, as far as I understand it, and spreadsheets sent and cuts requested. None of them that I was CC’d on, no conversations was I involved in,” Hambley said, going on it was “disingenuous” for Gibbs to claim she was fully involved.
She said she hasn’t spoken with Gibbs in person in months and attempts to communicate and raise concerns were unanswered.
She said her job was to provide the people of Ottawa County with “mandated, quality public health” services, and that she wanted to make sure her department was funded properly to do that.
“My client would have been derelict in her duties if she hadn’t reported to you what she saw as the problems with this budget, and frankly, she would have been derelict if she had not told the public about what was happening,” Hambley’s lawyer, Sarah Howard, told commissioners in a closing argument, saying that seemed to the only avenue to drive home the effects of a limited 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 Oct. 1, was less than the previous year.
“Information … about the government generally belongs to the public and it’s disingenuous to say you believe in transparency and to have restricted the flow of information in the manner that we’re talking about here today,” Howard said.
Howard argued that conservative commissioners have tried to skip the process and oust Hambley simply because they don’t like her.
“It’s going to be a grave, grave miscarriage of justice and the people of this county if you vote to remove Adeline Hambley as your county health officer,” Howard said.
Gibbs, who testified first Wednesday, was questioned about the process of budgeting for the health department, including reviewing hundreds of pages of emails and documents about the process.
In her questioning of Gibbs, Howard attempted to demonstrate that Hambley was cut out of the budget process and that Hambley went to the media because she was worried that her department would be forced to close and the state health department would have to take over.
Gibbs frequently responded to questions by saying he didn’t remember or that he would have to refer to budget numbers. He worked to assert his view that Hambley should not have gone to the media with her concerns because she “create(d) hysteria” before the budget was complete.
“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 irresponsible,” Gibbs said.
He also argued there were a “record” number of meetings through which the public could stay aware of the budgeting process.
On cross-examination, the county’s lawyers worked to show that Gibbs was including the health department and Hambley specifically in the budgeting process, going through a financial services liaison and CC’ing Hambley on emails. When asked if he ever tried to cut Hambley out of the process, Gibbs replied, “No, absolutely not.”
Attorneys attempted to show that formulating various budget proposals is standard and that the $2.5 million general fund figure was never included in a complete budget proposal.
Gibbs, who was testifying under subpoena, refused to answer Howard’s questions regarding the hiring of his senior executive aide Jordan Epperson. When Howard sought to get the retired judge presiding over the hearing to compel him to answer, the judge said he did not have the power to do. Commission Chair Joe Moss said he couldn’t force Gibbs to answer, either. This prompted a pause in the proceedings while Howard considered seeking a court order to force Gibbs to answer. Ultimately, she continued with her questioning.
The man who did not get the aide position, Ryan Kimball, on Tuesday sued the county, alleging age discrimination and saying Gibbs picked Epperson because he was younger than Kimball, the Holland Sentinel reported. Kimball, 49, said he met all the listed requirements for the job, but Epperson, 23, met only one. During the first day of Hambley’s removal hearing Tuesday, human resources director Marcie VerBeek and former county deputy administrator Patrick Waterman testified that Gibbs wanted to hire Epperson because he was young and could be “bossed around.”
The county’s lawyer, David Kallman, in his closing argument called Waterman’s testimony in question, calling him a “disgruntled” former employee “who’s upset because apparently Mr. Gibbs wouldn’t talk to him enough.”
Hambley also testified about interactions she had with Gibbs in which he objected to the county participating in programs at Grand Valley State University aimed at combating sexually transmitted infections. She said she explained to him that the Ottawa County Department of Public Health’s job was to work to prevent illness without assigning a moral judgment to behavior. She also said that during at least one hiring process, he made a reference that leadership did not want to employ people with certain ideologies.
Kallman said Howard was more concerned in her questioning with “attacking, smearing and maligning others” instead of addressing the allegations laid out in the document signed by Moss.
“What we’ve seen here in the last couple days is Ms. Hambley and her attorney’s tactics of personal destruction on personal display,” Kallman said.
Howard on Tuesday called several witnesses in an attempt to show that Hambley’s actions were not incompetent or neglectful and that Hambley wanted to make sure her department could function properly. Kallman attempted to show that the health department’s budget was not dealt with any differently than any other agency.
Kallman said in his closing argument that the evidence and testimony presented contradict Hambley’s claim that she was cut out of the budget process.
“Ms. Howard just spent hours today … going after email after email after email, showing her (Hambley’s) involvement while she claims she wasn’t,” Kallman said. “She was not cut out of the process, yet she told the public that she was.”
He said the board must decide based on their own opinion whether Hambley demonstrated incompetence, misconduct or neglect.
“I think all three grounds are proven. I think the decision is clear,” Kallman said.
Hambley has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Ottawa Impact-backed commissioners who moved in their first meeting to oust her. In her lawsuit against them filed in February, 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.
Earlier this month, the county submitted an application to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to approve the appointment of Nathaniel Kelly to replace Hambley. A letter from MDHHS to Gibbs on Monday informed him that the agency could not consider Kelly while a permanent health officer remained in office. 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.