MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A judge on Monday denied a motion to prevent a hearing for the removal of Ottawa County’s top health officer, saying the Board of Commissioners now appears to be abiding by state law governing the situation.
The hearing for Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley’s removal is scheduled for 8 a.m. Tuesday at the County Administration Building in West Olive.
After listening to arguments Monday from the attorneys for Hambley and the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, Judge Jenny McNeill denied Hambley’s motion to stay the hearing.
“At this point in time, they have given you notice to what their charges are, you have the right to contest those charges … and there’s an opportunity tomorrow to do that,” McNeill said. “The statute is very clear that if there’s some issue of incompetence or neglect — they cannot remove Ms. Hambley if they don’t like her, they can’t do that — but they’re entitled to their hearing. That’s what they didn’t do in the beginning and they’re doing it now. And I don’t think I can second-guess or pre-judge it, or set the rules at it. I don’t think I have the authority to do that. I think the hearing occurs and go forward from there.”
Hambley’s attorney, Sarah Howard, had argued the board’s reasoning to fire Hambley would not meet legal standards for just cause because it was just a “pretext,” saying certain commissioners have been trying to get rid of Hambley since they took office. She also suggested that the rules for the hearing would not provide Hambley due process, noting in particular that she won’t be able to call commissioners as witnesses.
“The existence of pretext for the reason for termination would moot or negate any just cause,” Howard told the judge. “We think there’s no fair way to show pretext without being able to call some of the commissioners as witnesses.”
She wanted McNeill to stay the hearing until she could issue rulings about what standards the board must meet and how the hearing should be conducted.
David Kallman, the board’s attorney, argued the court did not have jurisdiction to stop the hearing for removal. He said the board has the right under state law to hold it.
“There is no power source giving this court authority to issue a stay,” Kallman said. “If a stay is issued, it would violate (the) separation of powers doctrine… This court has no authority to stop legislative hearings like this.”
He also pointed out that the Michigan Court of Appeals already repeatedly refused to stay the hearing.
Since February, Hambley has been engaged in a legal battle with commissioners backed by political action committee Ottawa Impact who moved in their first meeting in January to oust her. She filed a lawsuit 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. 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 just cause under state law.
A document signed by Commission Chair Joe Moss presented a case for cause, alleging misconduct in the way Hambley handled and communicated to the press about the recent budget process, which saw fewer dollars than last year allocated to her department.
“We felt that we were correct, our clients were entitled to hold a hearing tomorrow and the judge agreed and that she can’t prejudge it,” Kallman told reporters after Monday’s proceedings. “They followed the statute. They’re entitled to have a hearing. What happens at the hearing, we’ll see how that all plays out, but the hearing is moving forward so we’re pleased with the ruling.”
Howard thinks she knows what will happen at the hearing:
“I think the board is going to vote exactly how they did on Jan. 3,” she told reporters. “They’ve wanted to do that from the beginning. They’ve tried various ways of getting there. They want to appoint someone who politically aligns (with them).”
In January, commissioners said Nathaniel Kelly would replace Hambley, but it was only this month that the county submitted an application to the state health department to approve his appointment. 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.
Moss got involved in county politics and formed Ottawa Impact after the Ottawa County health department shut down his kids’ school in October 2020 for ignoring pandemic-era mask mandates.