Updated lawsuit: New commissioners hope to have political appointees run Ottawa County
OTTAWA COUNTY — The health officer of Ottawa County says the board of commissioners she's suing violated the Whistleblower Protection Act when it took steps late last month to claim she was never properly hired — and alleges Ottawa Impact representatives plan to change the way county government operates.
Adeline Hambley filed the lawsuit Feb. 10 in Ottawa County’s 20th Circuit Court, claiming several Ottawa Impact-linked commissioners have repeatedly interfered with her ability to do her job and have overreached their authority by attempting to limit her state-authorized health duties.
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The lawsuit argues the board improperly demoted Hambley to "interim health officer," a "constructive termination," on Jan. 3 — intending to replace her with their preferred health officer candidate, Nathaniel Kelly, who aligns with their beliefs and values.
Ottawa Impact is an upstart far-right political group borne from clashes over the county’s COVID-19 mitigation mandates in 2020. Its founders, Joe Moss and Sylvia Rhodea, were unsuccessful in suing the previous board of commissioners and the county's former health officer, Lisa Stefanovsky.
In response, they targeted seats on the board in 2022, recruiting like-minded candidates who agreed “traditional Republicans” weren’t enforcing true conservative policies. They successfully defeated enough incumbents in the August primary to win the majority.
Hambley's suit names Board Chair Moss, Vice Chair Rhodea, and Commissioners Lucy Ebel, Gretchen Cosby, Roger Belknap, Allison Miedema and Rebekah Curran; all of whom voted to "demote" Hambley at the board's inaugural meeting Jan. 3.
Curran has since clarified she withdrew from Ottawa Impact last spring.
In an amended complaint filed Friday, March 24, Hambley says the commissioners retaliated against her for filing the lawsuit when Moss and Rhodea introduced a controversial "correction" Feb. 28 to the December resolution that first appointed Hambley to the role. The amended complaint also named the county board, in its entirety, as an additional defendant.
The five commissioners opposed to the "correction" — Curran, Jacob Bonnema, Doug Zylstra, Roger Bergman and Kyle Terpstra — questioned its necessity, and asked if there was a larger motive. Others critical of the move said changing meeting minutes after they've been approved is a direct violation of Michigan's Open Meetings Act.
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The OI commissioners argue the resolution approving Hambley’s appointment "did not accurately reflect the actual motion and vote that took place at the meeting" because there were wording discrepancies between the written resolution and the verbal motion made by one of the commissioners prior to the unanimous vote to appoint Hambley.
Once the "correction" was approved by Ottawa Impact commissioners in a 6-5 vote, corporate legal counsel moved the next day to have Hambley's lawsuit dismissed, claiming she was never legally hired by the county and lacked standing to sue.
New allegations of interference
Hambley says the OI commissioners continue to hamper her ability to complete her job responsibilities, including standing in the way of critical contracts the county has with local health providers.
"Defendants have actively worked against (Hambley) to hold up what should be routine contracts and without regard for damage with county relationships with community partners and, in some cases, the county’s contractual and other legal obligations," Hambley's attorney, Sarah Riley Howard, wrote in the amended complaint.
Those contracts include the Community Health Needs Assessment, a collaborative effort by the health department, local hospitals and several other entities to identify and define local health issues, concerns and needs. It's a statutory requirement for nonprofit hospitals and helps the health department identify and address needs.
Hambley claims that despite ratifying a contract Jan. 10 with the vendor that will administer the survey, the OI commissioners are preventing a final required step to keep the survey on track, allegedly over what questions the survey will ask.
The memorandum of understanding, outlining commitments by various organizations, was approved in a committee meeting — but held up on full board approval by Rhodea, who said she wanted to review the questions used in the survey.
During the board’s Feb. 21 health and human services committee meeting, Hambley said the commissioners don't have standing to weigh in on the survey questions.
“The Healthy Ottawa Coalition determines the questions based on the acceptable methods and prescribed standards,” she said. “It's not a purview of this board to review or approve the survey questions, just as it’s not under your purview to dictate water sampling methods, how to complete dental cleaning or how to complete cause-of-death investigations.”
Hambley said questions relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, which she believed to be sources of concern for commissioners, are necessary for hospitals to understand healthcare needs and health disparities for those populations.
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Since then, Hambley said the MOU has not been added to subsequent meeting agendas, despite requests sent to the commissioners and new county administrator John Gibbs. Hambley also claims Gibbs has ignored communications from area hospitals to discuss the issue.
"Executives from Trinity Health and Corewell, two of the major hospital systems operating within the county, have attempted contact with Administrator Gibbs multiple times to talk about the MOU. Administrator Gibbs has ignored these hospital executives and not returned their messages, and Defendants have refused to add the MOU back on the agenda," the amended complaint said.
Anti-discrimination clause becomes problematic
Hambley also claims the county's new corporation counsel, Kallman Legal Group, is refusing to approve a contract extension with My Community Dental Centers for public dental services over MCDC's requirement that an anti-discrimination clause be included in the agreement.
The health department contracts with MCDC to provide dental care for children and adults who don't have dental insurance or access to adequate oral health care.
Hambley says the health department recently sent a routine contract extension agreement with MCDC to Gibbs' office to be approved in order to continue providing "critical dental services for county residents who cannot afford them."
Hambley said KLG attorney Lanae Monera refused to approve the contract extension agreement on March 14, because it "included sexual orientation and gender identity as bases upon which discrimination against program recipients was prohibited."
"Ms. Monera stated that she would not permit this to be included because, in her words, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity is not 'currently required by Michigan law,'" Hambley said in her amended complaint.
Her attorney argued KLG's legal position is incorrect.
"(Hambley) is aware, and confirmed with legal counsel at her private expense, that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal pursuant to binding state case law," the complaint said.
Howard wrote that, at the time of communications over the agreement, it was well known that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was expected to imminently sign a legislative amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act specifically including those forms of discrimination as covered under ELCRA; Whitmer signed the amendment March 16.
"When the governor signed the ELCRA amendment as expected a few days later, the health department personnel sent a follow-up email to Ms. Monera asking her to send through the contract extension for approval," which she again declined, saying the expanded anti-discrimination language does not go into legal effect until April 2024.
The current contract with MCDC, however, is set to expire in October 2023.
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"(Monera) said that once the change to ELCRA becomes effective in April 2024, the health department personnel could resubmit the contract extension agreement for review at that time. At that point, MCDC would be under no obligation to re-negotiate or amend the contract extension agreement," Howard wrote.
Hambley is arguing that KLG's position on the issue is potentially precarious, and could open the county up to unnecessary litigation.
"(Hambley) reasonably believes that this is poor legal advice, risks potential future discrimination claims against county, and constitutes a waste of employee time to address an issue in the future which would be addressed now one time," Howard wrote.
Hambley claims the OI commissioners and Gibbs are also actively discouraging county employees from being involved in programs or funding tied to health equity or racial disparity issues.
"Administrator Gibbs and Defendants have indicated to various staff people who report to (Hambley) and/or in the county’s finance department that they should not bother to apply for grant money which addresses in any way health equity, or studies racial disparities in delivery of services, because any program which involves these issues will not be approved," Howard wrote in the new filing.
Hambley says this will have a chilling effect on the health department's programs — even those not attached to equity or disparity issues.
"This will result in the County Health Department losing significant grant opportunities, even those which do not focus on equitable delivery of health services," Howard wrote. "Moreover, (Hambley) believes that studying, addressing, and fixing where applicable any race disparities in delivery of health services to the county is an integral part of her mission as the Health Officer, so this unnecessarily political prohibition is a significant barrier to her effectively doing her job."
More changes to come?
Hambley said Gibbs has indicated it's his and Ottawa Impact's intention to revamp the county government structure to emulate the federal government model, where commissioners would be able to appoint political allies to run departments.
"Administrator Gibbs has stated on various occasions that he wants to remake Ottawa County to operate more like the federal government," Hambley said in the updated complaint.
"One such change to emulate the federal government for which Administrator Gibbs has advocated is a desire to have individual county departments run by political appointees installed at the pleasure of the then-governing commission, or by individual commissioners, instead of by non-political employee-officers with professional expertise, like (Hambley)."
The original lawsuit sought to have Hambley declared Ottawa County's current health officer, with a finding she can't be terminated without following certain legal procedures.
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In the amended complaint, Howard added a violation of the Whistleblowers Protection Act, arguing Hambley reported a violation of the law when she filed her original lawsuit. She's also requesting the court invalidate the Feb. 28 "Revisionist Resolution."
Curran was exempted from the WPA claim, as she didn't vote in favor of the "correction."
Although not seeking a specified amount in damages, Howard said her client has incurred costs and attorney's fees and said the "amount in controversy exceeds $25,000."
The case was assigned to Muskegon Circuit Court Judge Jenny McNeill after all Ottawa County judges recused themselves. A hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday, March 31.
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A second lawsuit from a citizen group was filed against the board March 8, alleging the Ottawa Impact majority violated the state's Open Meetings Act at its inaugural meeting by communicating and making decisions behind closed doors beforehand. The lawsuit names the board as an entity and doesn't identify individual commissioners.
The suit seeks to nullify decisions made by the board Jan. 3, arguing Ottawa Impact commissioners were a de facto public body and required to adhere to OMA beginning Nov. 9 — the day after the general election — because, during that time, they knew they'd hold a majority on the board, discussed county business, made decisions affecting the county and gave instructions to county staff, which were followed.
— Sarah Leach is executive editor of The Holland Sentinel. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SentinelLeach.
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Hambley: New commissioners hope to have political appointees run Ottawa County