GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — A judge on Thursday granted a temporary restraining order to stop the ouster of the Ottawa County administrative health officer as her lawsuit against county commissioners moves forward.
Ottawa County and the commissioners were “enjoined and prevented from taking any action to remove Plaintiff Adeline Hambley from the position of Health Officer of Ottawa County until such time as the parties are heard further on this matter…” under the order.
“It was disappointing that the judge did not hear from all sides before issuing the order because this was an order that was completely unnecessary and not required,” said David Kallman, an attorney for Ottawa County and its commissioners.
In February, Hambley sued the conservative Ottawa Impact-backed commissioners who moved in their first meeting in January to fire her from her role as the county’s top health official. Her suit argued that state law prohibits the firing of a health officer without cause to prevent the health officer from doing her duties. It says that the commissioners have not provided evidence that Hambley is not doing her job.
On Tuesday, commissioners voted narrowly to revise the record of the December resolution by their predecessors that appointed Hambley. The board’s legal counsel said during the Tuesday meeting that they were just correcting the minutes, but commissioners who voted against it — including the board’s lone Democrat and the only Republican still on the board who wasn’t backed by Ottawa Impact — told News 8 that it seemed like the others were trying to position themselves to invalidate the appointment.
Hambley’s request for the temporary restraining order supports that. According to the request, which was filed Thursday, the commissioners’ lawyers sent a four-page letter to Hambley’s lawyer on Wednesday afternoon “claiming that the Board’s Revisionist Resolution has the legal effect of rendering (Hambley’s) appointment as Health Officer as invalid and threatening a motion for sanctions if (Hambley) does not dismiss her Complaint by March 7.”
David Kallman, the commissioners’ lawyer, sent News 8 a copy of that Wednesday letter (PDF). It argues “Hambley has never been fully appointed to the permanent position” because her approval from the state would not go into effect until April 1 and the previous board never voted to approve full appointment.
The letter asks Hambley to drop her lawsuit.
Commissioners Roger Bergman, a Republican, and Doug Zylstra, a Democrat, both of whom were on the board in December, told News 8 the board clearly voted to appoint Hambley.
The request for the restraining order also says that Hambley’s regularly scheduled meeting with County Administrator John Gibbs was moved from 2:30 p.m. Thursday to 10 a.m. Thursday and that the commissioners’ lawyers were added as participants. The request says Hambley was not told this verbally and only noticed it when she checked her calendar Wednesday afternoon.
“No one affirmatively advised (Hambley) of this change, nor notified her that Gibbs would have defense lawyers in her case present. In fact, Gibbs has said nothing to (Hambley) since she filed her Complaint,” the document reads. “Defense counsel also has provided no notice to (Hambley’s) counsel that they intended to meet with (her).”
The request argued it seemed likely that Gibbs was planning to fire Hambley outright during that 10 a.m. meeting. The judge signed the restraining order into effect at 9:58 a.m.
Gibbs was appointed county administrator during the same January meeting that commissioners voted to remove Hambley.
Kallman claimed there was no reason for concerns that the meeting was held in order to fire Hambley.
“It could not have been done via the executive, they have no power to do that. Only the board can hire or fire a health officer,” Kallman said.
Also at that January meeting, the board voted to appoint Nathaniel Kelly to replace Hambley. That appointment must be approved by the state health department, which told News 8 Wednesday it had not yet received the request from the county. Kelly has been critical of coronavirus mitigation measures including social distancing and wearing masks.
Law expert Gerald Fisher said boards do have the ability to fire a health officer under Michigan law.
“If, in the boards’ opinion — which is a big thing — in the board’s opinion, the officer or agent is incompetent to exercise properly the duties of office,” Fisher explained.
He said whether or not a potential firing, in this case, would be legal, is up to how the law is considered by a judge.
“Arguably, you could take the position that if the board by majority votes and says, ‘this is our opinion,’ that may be enough, but that would be for the court to interpret,” Fisher said.
Hambley’s lawyers were instructed to provide a brief about a preliminary injunction by Friday and the defense was given until March 9 to respond. A hearing on whether the temporary restraining order should be extended and Hambley’s motion for a preliminary injunction was scheduled for March 13.
— News 8’s Demetrios Sanders contributed to this report.