GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After more than a dozen hours’ worth of witness testimony and debate, Ottawa County health officer Adeline Hambley is expected to learn if she’ll be fired Monday morning.
Ten different witnesses, including Hambley, testified under oath over two days last week at a special board of commissioners meeting. The removal hearing unfolded like a trial: a retired judge oversaw proceedings and lawyers on both sides cross-examined witnesses.
After the hearing concluded, Commissioner Gretchen Cosby suggested a recess to consider all the evidence. Once public comment concluded, Chairman Joe Moss motioned for a recess until Monday, which passed unanimously.
When the conservative group Ottawa Impact took the board over in January, they attempted to oust Hambley as top health officer. She eventually filed a lawsuit against the board in February, arguing 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.
Several months after Hambley’s attempted ouster, she has now been charged with incompetence, misconduct and neglect of duty for telling the public back in August that the health department would be forced to close because of a large proposed budget cut.
“Rather than acting competently and in good faith, Ms. Hambley unprofessionally resorted to extreme public hyperbole,” a charging document signed by Moss reads.
Among those called to testify Wednesday morning was County Administrator John Gibbs. He argued that Hambley spread fear in the community by saying the health department could shut down even though the budget was not yet finalized.
“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 responsible,” Gibbs said.
Hambley testified that the community deserved to know about a proposed 60% budget cut because it could impact essential services.
“When this level of cut is being considered that would severely impact public health programming and potentially have legal ramifications, and it would impact public health, I think that information needs to be communicated to the public,” Hambley said Wednesday.
Gibbs countered that there were several meetings during the budget process in which the public could stay aware. He frequently responded to Hambley’s attorney’s questions by saying he didn’t recall or that he would have to refer to budget numbers or emails.
Hambley 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.
Hambley’s attorney tried to show in questioning that after she told the public about the proposed budget cut, she was cut out of the process and her attempts to get involved were unsuccessful.
Gibbs disputed that and claimed he communicated with Hambley through an employee in fiscal services. That worker testified that she was never told to cut Hambley out. Hambley countered that the employee doesn’t have experience in public health.
“She’s not an expert on services or service level requirements,” Hambley said. “She’s knowledgeable about accounting. (I tried) to insert myself in the process as much as I can.”
The initial proposal would have given the health department $2.5 million from the general fund. Commissioners ultimately decided the health department would get $4.8 million from the general fund.
Commissioner Gretchen Cosby, who is affiliated with Ottawa Impact, said the health department would never have closed.
“That was never, ever going to be the case,” Cosby said Wednesday. “I would have publicly fought that.”
“The volume of emails I received from parents, from people who receive services, basically pleading with me not to do that … that was never going to be an option,” Cosby continued. “It made me feel so sad.”
Vice chair and Ottawa Impact co-founder Sylvia Rhodea argued that 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 Commissioner Doug Zylstra, a Democrat, argued without the public input prompted by Hambley, the board would not have wound up with the budget it ultimately approved.
Commissioner Jacob Bonnema, who used to be a part of Ottawa Impact, said the potential firing of Hambley is about much more than the budget.
“We’ve been watching this for a long time,” Bonnema said. “She wasn’t your pick. You wanted to have your pick from the very beginning, you’ve been working hard to make that happen this entire time. Don’t tell us this story that just isn’t true.”
Bonnema later told Hambley that she’s demonstrated herself to be a fair person.
“If you failed at anything during this process, it’s not being part of their club,” Bonnema said. “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.”
Chairman Joe Moss countered that the charges to remove Hambley from office weren’t filed until recently.
“These specific charges were only filed because they were warranted,” Moss said Wednesday. “They weren’t needed or warranted in May or June or July. These charges are about the events that transpired in August and September. They were a direct correlation, a reaction to a result of the actions of Ms. Hambley.”
Moss said the evidence he heard during the hearing did not dispute the charges but 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,” Moss said. “We extended the finance meetings, added additional deliberation, but I keep hearing that that wasn’t appreciated.”
Monday’s hearing starts at 8 a.m.