OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A hearing has been scheduled for the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners to discuss removing Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley from her job.
The commission’s special meeting is scheduled for Oct. 19 at the county administration building in West Olive, according to a notice signed by Board Chair Joe Moss and dated Tuesday.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Hambley’s attorney filed motions asking the Michigan Court of Appeals to issue an emergency order to stop the hearing from happening.
“Moss, without the entire Board of Commission issuing the charges, intends to put on a sham hearing to fire Hambley,” one of the motions reads in part.
Moss and other commissioners backed by conservative political action committee Ottawa Impact have been trying to fire Hambley since they took office in January. She filed a lawsuit to stop the ouster. Current court instruction says she may not be fired without cause, as required by state law.
The document announcing the removal hearing lays out the actions that county leaders are now pointing to as cause, arguing Hambley has demonstrated incompetence, misconduct and neglect of duty.
The charges against her center around the recent battle over the health department’s budget for the upcoming year. The document says Hambley did not provide budget scenarios as requested and that she “made false claims” about the budgeting process and its effects, causing “confusion, anxiety, fear and panic.”
After being asked by county Administrator John Gibbs to create a budget limited to $2.5 million from the general fund, Hambley spoke publicly about how the dollar amount was not sufficient and released a document saying it would cause the Ottawa County Department of Public Health to close.
“Ms. Hambley knew that any request for proposed budgetary scenarios were not final or binding…” the notice of the hearing said in part. “Yet, instead of responding professionally and competently … Ms. Hambley ran to the media claiming that the Health Department may be shut down. Her actions incited fear and panic in the community.”
The charges in the document argue that Hambley acted “dishonestly” and “in bad faith” during the budgeting process. The notice says that if Hambley had concerns about proposed funding, she should have “worked towards a solution” with Gibbs but instead “attack(ed) and impugn(ed) his and the (board of commissioners’) motives.”
“While it is always acceptable to publicly criticize an officially proposed budget that has been presented to the Fiance Committee or the BOC, it is wholly inappropriate to present internal budgetary questions to the public as they are formal and/or finalized proposals and then stoke fear and panic based upon misrepresentations and misinterpretations of those internal and preliminary budgeting questions,” the document reads.
Hambley did not comment on the hearing for her removal, instead pointing to the response her attorney sent to the county’s counsel. The documents provided show David Kallman, the board’s attorney, emailed Hambley’s lawyer Sarah Howard shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday to warn her that the notice for the removal hearing was forthcoming.
“I wanted to reach out and see if there is any interest from your client to resolve all her disputes amicably with one global resolution where the parties can go their separate ways,” Kallman wrote.
The answer to that question was no:
“(Hambley) is not interested in a negotiated resolution of her case which would involve her resignation or her removal as Health Officer,” Howard replied in an email Wednesday morning. “Accordingly, we intend to oppose the charges at the proceeding…”
In her motions filed with the Michigan Court of Appeals, Howard asked that the matter of the hearing be dealt with before Oct. 11, when the court is scheduled to hear arguments over Hambley’s suit against the commissioners. Her motion for a stay pointed out that in an order on Sept. 5, the court warned everyone involved “that they proceed at their own peril if they take substantial actions” before the Oct. 11 arguments.
“It only took three weeks for Appellant Joe Moss to take one of the ‘substantial actions’ about which this court cautioned,” the motion reads in part.
The hearing for removal, Howard said, will likely happen before the appeals court issues a ruling regarding what it hears Oct. 11.
“Appellants have made multiple public statements over the last several weeks indicating that they are likely planning a sham termination of Appellee Hambley, and now they have announced plans to move forward before this Court can realistically rule on the merits of the appeal in this case,” the motion for stay reads.
In her email to Kallman, Howard objected to the county’s “unilateral selection” of a judge to preside over the hearing and said she wanted to speak with him about how the hearing would work, including how testimony and exhibits would be presented and whether Hambley and Howard would be able to call their own witnesses. In her motion to stay, she said she will need time before the hearing for discovery and to subpoena witnesses.
“Even if Appellants’ act was not an attempt at an end-run around this Court, which it is, there is no way for Appellee Hambley to have a hearing which comports with the federal and state due process required by October 19, 2023, in any event,” the motion says.
Commissioners passed the county’s budget early Wednesday after an hourslong meeting. It allocated $4.8 million to the health department for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Hambley had asked for $6.4 million.
County leaders touted the budget as “fiscally responsible and the process as “the most transparent” in the county’s history, “incorporating for the first time an easier-to-understand format, information on grants and payments, and additional work sessions for Commissioners and the public to engage in the process,” Gibbs said in a statement.
Gibbs declined a request for an on-camera interview.
In a statement discussing the budget, not the hearing for removal, Hambley reiterated that it “includes cuts to mandated health education, and nutrition and wellness programs, as well as a reduction in funding for one epidemiologist for disease surveillance.”
Hambley told News 8 that she will try to limit the impact of those cuts.
“The bulk of our budget is people. There’s not a whole lot of operational excess or non-people costs that we can cut,” she said in an interview. “We are looking at some different options. If we can reduce hours or close external branches, that’s one of the few non-people costs I have. So we have a branch in Grand Haven that provides some services and we have one in Hudsonville.”
She said other departments have not been asked to make similar cuts to their budgets.
“Some of the commissioners ran on a platform of wanting to take action against the health department because of being angry about actions during COVID,” Hambley said. “I think that this is part of making that promise of retaliating against the health department for actions they didn’t like during COVID.”
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 mask mandates.
In January, Ottawa Impact commissioners moved to replace Hambley with Nathaniel Kelly, who works as a safety manager at a Grand Rapids heating and cooling system service and repair company and who has criticized COVID-19 mitigation measures like wearing masks and social distancing. Under state law, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services must approve the appointment of health officers. As of Wednesday, MDHHS had not received an application for Kelly, a spokesperson told News 8.
—News 8’s Kyle Mitchell contributed to this report.