OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — After several more hours of closed-door negotiations Tuesday, Ottawa County commissioners again recessed without voting on whether to fire the county’s top health officer or on a settlement that would end her lawsuit against them.
“She is the health officer for the next two weeks and will continue to do the job,” Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley’s lawyer said.
The fifth day of the hearing for Hambley’s removal reconvened at the County Administration Building in West Olive at 9 a.m. and commissioners voted immediately to go to closed session. It wasn’t until about 3:45 p.m. that they came back and said they were recessing.
“There’s still not a lot I can tell you about. We’re still in negotiations with the county,” Hambley’s attorney, Sarah Howard, told reporters after the hearing ended. “We have continued disagreements about where we are in the process and we’re going to have to try and work that out again when we reconvene in two weeks, unfortunately.”
The hearing is scheduled to resume for day 6 at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 28. By that time, the removal hearing will have been unresolved for more than a month.
“I’m pretty exhausted. I don’t know about the rest of you who had to sit out there all day today,” Howard said to reporters. “It would be nice to bring this to some kind of conclusion for everyone and the county, but we’re just not there yet.”
She noted negotiations are always slow — it’s just unusual that the public is waiting to see the outcome.
“If we settle, litigation would presumably be done as part of that settlement. If there’s no settlement, they’re going to have to conclude the hearing in some fashion, whatever that looks like, and Health Officer Hambley still has litigation ongoing on other claims even if she isn’t fired after a termination hearing,” Howard said. “If she is fired after a termination hearing, she’s obviously no longer here, she’ll be replaced, and litigation will continue.”
Commissioners had been expected to vote on whether or not to fire Hambley last week, but that didn’t happen. Just like Tuesday, members went into closed session for hours before ultimately voting to accept their lawyer’s recommendation regarding a settlement to Hambley’s lawsuit.
Citing sources, the Holland Sentinel reported the settlement would give Hambley $4 million to resign. The newspaper said the deal also called for the resignation of Deputy Health Officer Marcia Mansaray, saying she would get a severance of one year’s pay of $125,000. The Sentinel said the $4 million would all come from the county’s insurance authority fund, which the paper reports has a balance of $23 million.
Howard said she could not comment on any potential dollar amounts or the details of any potential deal.
“Our position is (that) we had a binding settlement agreement with known terms pending and we were just reducing it to writing. There was some disagreement about whether that was the case. And so we’re continuing to have talks surrounding that issue and to see if we can resolve the situation with a settlement or if that’s not going to be possible,” Howard said Tuesday.
“We are not exactly back to square one, that’s now how I would describe it, but we’re trying to get this across the finish line and we’re just not there yet,” she continued.
Conservative commissioners backed by political action committee Ottawa Impact voted in their first meeting in January to remove Hambley from her job and put her in an interim role. She sued, saying that was illegal. Commissioners countered that she was never properly appointed by their predecessors. The Michigan Court of Appeals finally ruled that Hambley was rightfully appointed, but also that the board could fire her if it could prove cause under state law.
A document signed by Ottawa Impact co-founder and Board of Commissioners Chair Joe 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 recent budgeting process.
The removal hearing got underway Oct. 24 and included two days of testimony in which Hambley’s lawyer tried to show her client was only concerned with ensuring her department could operate properly, saying Administrator John Gibbs tried to cut her out of the budgeting process.
Hambley testified she went to the media because her understanding was that the general fund dollars to the Ottawa County Department of Public Health would be limited to $2.5 million, which she said would cause it to close. 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.
Commissioners debated for a while after the second day of testimony, but held off voting so they would have more time to consider everything they heard. The following Monday, Oct. 30, they pushed the vote back another week. It was last Monday, Nov. 6, that they voted to accept the settlement recommendation.
Moss did not respond to questions about what happened Tuesday.
Howard said her client is worried about health department staff members and their ability to do their job as the hearing drags on.
“She’s been doing as she has been doing to try and reassure them that they will continue to move forward, she’ll share when she can and that the work that they’re doing is important and needs to continue and everyone’s valued,” Howard said. “And that they all need to take care of their mental health and ask for help if they need it, because it’s a pretty stressful time to work in that department.”
She said Hambley also has concerns about her own role should she remain health officer.
“She has some significant concerns about how safe she is in the position and whether she’ll continue to be subjected to unfounded allegations and another hearing,” Howard said.
—News 8’s Byron Tollefson contributed to this report.