COVID policies divide officials in Ottawa County.
While the pandemic is not technically in the past – many people continue to be infected with COVID-19’s many variants to this day – the bulk of the world has shifted its focus to other things. However, the legal fallout continues to rage from the actions that were taken during the heart of the pandemic, and these stories are now grabbing more headlines than the virus itself. One such story is ongoing in Ottawa County, a small county in Michigan. In that county, the leadership was largely overturned during the pandemic, shifting to a notably conservative group after elections. As a result, that group sought to oust the top health official in the county, and a sizeable settlement agreement was reached. It is this settlement that is now the focus of much debate.
At the heart of all of the discussion and debate is a settlement offer in the amount of $4 million that was made to Adeline Hambley. At the time, Hambley was the top health official in the small county, and the newly elected conservative leaders wanted to move her out of that position. Toward that end, a settlement offer was made, although the official status of that offer and how formal it was is now being contested.
Without a doubt, a settlement of $4 million is a massive number for a relatively small county. In fact, if paid out, that total would make up roughly a quarter of the health department’s entire annual budget. Now that disagreement has been raised regarding the status of this payout, a lawyer representing Hambley has filed a legal motion to have the settlement enforced.
The refreshed board took the mission of slashing the budget of the health department as one of its primary goals, so the payout of such a huge settlement certainly goes against that trend. However, it may be too late to go back, so that decision is going to be made as the legal process plays out.
There is also plenty of ongoing turnover within the board itself, as one of the members resigned on the same day that Hambley filed suit against the board for termination in violation of public policy. To add to the confusion and potential for conflict, the new board is appointing an individual – Nathaniel Kelly – as the county health department head, despite Mr. Kelly having no public health experience. That appointment will have to be approved by the state Department of Health and Human Services, however, so it is yet to be seen if it will go through.
It is hard to justify a massive settlement being paid in the middle of a budget crisis, but the legal process and battle over the millions in question will certainly play out in court. Hopefully the new leadership in the county will be able to make public health decisions that are in the best interests of the more than 300,000 people that reside in that jurisdiction moving forward.