OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County’s top health officer is asking a judge to force the county to pay her $4 million to settle her lawsuit against commissioners, saying the county is trying to back out of the agreement, court documents show.
In a Thursday court filing, Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley’s attorney Sarah Howard argued that the Board of Commissioners agreed to settlement details, including the $4 million payout, on Nov. 6.
“Now Defendants have remorse and want out of the deal,” Howard wrote.
“Nobody ever agreed to anything, and (Howard) knows it,” David Kallman, the commissioners’ attorney, retorted in an interview with News 8 Thursday.
The court filing says that under the settlement, Hambley would leave her position by Dec. 15, 2023, in exchange for $4 million, while Deputy Health Officer Marcia Mansaray would resign in exchange for a severance of one year’s pay.
Howard argued that commissioners negotiated the agreement in closed session, memorialized it in writing via a series of emails and voted in favor of the settlement in open session before recessing.
“There was no discussion between counsel that the agreement would not become final until the written document was formalized,” Howard wrote. But, she continued, “defendants now argue that there was never a binding agreement in the first place.” She went on to call the argument “legally incorrect,” saying the emailed agreement — which both parties’ attorneys accepted — is enforceable.
According to the filing, after the Holland Sentinel broke the news of the settlement and sparked “significant public outcry opposed to the agreement,” the board’s counsel sent an email Nov. 9 with “the first indication that Defendants might attempt to back out of the agreement,” saying there was no final resolution.
On Tuesday, the board reconvened and asked to negotiate different terms, according to the filing.
“Defendants’ counsel claimed that they did not notify the primary or excess insurer before negotiating or agreeing to the deal, and they had since learned of potential negative consequences as a result,” Howard wrote in the filing.
Howard argued that “general remorse” and “unforeseen potential negative financial consequences” do not render the initial agreement nonbinding.
Speaking to News 8 via Zoom Thursday, Kallman argued there was never a finalized deal and that the $4 million proposal was among a number of options on the table.
“Apparently, attorney Howard doesn’t understand what settlement discussions are, and words like ‘tentative’ and ‘proposals.’ Those were the sorts of discussions that were going on in the last couple of weeks back and forth between the board and Ms. Howard and Ms. Hambley,” Kallman said.
He said his office never offered a recommendation that the board accept any specific settlement.
“In fact, right now, there are two proposals still on the table — not the $4 million proposal by a long shot,” Kallman said. “And we communicated to attorney Howard that the board would entertain further discussions on both of those proposals… But now, it’s pretty apparent — and it’s disappointing — we cannot have good faith discussions with attorney Howard. We can’t have normal give and take in settlement discussions without the other side running to the press, filing baseless motions with many false statements.”
He pointed out the board could still vote on firing Hambley outright.
He said his team would file its response next week. A court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 27 in Muskegon County Circuit Court.
Howard told News 8 Thursday she had no further comment.
Conservative county 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 Commission 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. 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 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. On Nov. 6, they voted to accept their lawyer’s recommendations on “litigation and settlement activities.” Kallman told News 8 that motion was meant to indicate discussions would continue.
On Tuesday, the fifth day of the hearing, commissioners voted immediately to go to closed session. After hours of negotiations, members came back said they were recessing again. The hearing was set to resume for its sixth day on Nov. 28.