GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County’s health officer is suing seven of the county commissioners, alleging they illegally demoted her with the intention of eventually firing her.
The board’s new slate of conservative commissioners moved on Jan. 3 to get rid of Adeline Hambley as administrative health officer, though they left her in the role on an interim basis while they worked to install Nathaniel Kelly in the office. The matter was not on the agenda before the meeting started — it was added in the middle.
On Feb. 13, Hambley’s attorneys filed a lawsuit in Ottawa County Circuit Court against Commissioners Joe Moss, Sylvia Rhodea, Lucy Ebel, Gretchin Cosby, Rebekah Curran, Roger Belknap and Allison Miedema (who added the agenda item to replace Hambley). The suit asks the court to reinstate Hambley as the Ottawa County health officer.
The lawsuit claims that the defendants have made it clear by their public statements that Hambley’s termination is “imminent.”
The lawsuit argues that state law prohibits firing a health officer without cause to prevent the health officer from doing their duties and that no allegations related to Hambley’s performance were presented when the commission moved to oust her.
The lawsuit alleges that if Hambley remains employed with the health department, she will be demoted so that the department appears to “function with Mr. Kelly at the helm… even though Mr. Kelly lacks the relevant and necessary professional experience to perform the Health Officer role.”
The internal county process of hiring Kelly for the position began on Jan. 30, the lawsuit says. The position was never posted and no outside candidates were reviewed.
“The (seven commissioners) selected Mr. Kelly as their favorite choice for the Health Officer in secret meetings not open to the public, and without any public process for vetting him as a candidate for the Health Officer position,” the lawsuit alleges.
The suit says Kelly has not started work and his credentials haven’t been submitted to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which is required by law.
Still, it says, the commissioners have tried to micromanage, interfere and prevent Hambley from doing her job.
On Feb. 9, court documents say a news organization ran a story about a Grand Valley State University student event that was planned to coincide with the monthly sexually-transmitted infections testing clinic that the health department holds. When asked by a news outlet, Hambley clarified that the health department did not sponsor the event, just the clinic.
The day before, she gave Ottawa County Administrator John Gibbs — who was also abruptly installed on the same day the board move to hire Kelley — a “courtesy advisory” about the issue, which he did not respond to. Court documents say that after Hambley’s statement was released to the media, Gibbs “ordered that the statement be retracted because he did not approve the statement or its release.”
On Feb. 10, Gibbs reprimanded Hambley for not having prior approval from him. Court documents say Hambley said she disagreed with retracting the statement and explained why she believed her statement was accurate.
The lawsuit alleges that Gibbs then claimed a health department employee was involved with the GVSU sexual health event and wanted an investigation to be conducted. Hambley believes that this investigation could be an attempt to terminate the employee for potentially volunteering at an event on their own time.
“(The commissioners) are attempting to micromanage (Hambley) … even though state law provides the Health Officer with duties and powers specifically free of this type of interference for particular policy reasons,” the lawsuit says.
After the defendants are served with the lawsuit, they will have a chance to respond.