A health official in Michigan is taking her county to court over $4 million resignation offer

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The top health official in one of Michigan’s largest counties is asking a judge to uphold a $4 million settlement in exchange for her resignation, coming after months of conflict with local conservative leaders who were elected in response to COVID-19 restrictions.

Ottawa County leaders had attempted to fire Adeline Hambley in January after they took majority control of the county’s board of commissioners. Finding themselves unable to, the board opted to offer her $4 million — equivalent to a quarter of the health department’s 2024 budget — in return for her resignation. She also would have had to drop her lawsuit against the county.

The board backed off the offer, saying it was only a “tentative settlement agreement.” David Kallman, the county's legal counsel, told The Associated Press that “there has never been an agreement by the board to accept the $4 million. There were discussions.”

But Hambley's lawyer filed a motion Thursday to enforce the settlement, and it's scheduled to go in front of a judge on Nov. 27.

“The parties agreed to settle this matter on Nov. 6, 2023. Now, defendants have remorse and want out of the deal,” Hambley’s lawyer, Sarah Riley-Howard, wrote in the filing.

Public health officials and local health departments across the country became political targets during the pandemic due to lockdowns and restrictions.

Ottawa County's health department serves 300,000 residents in the western part of the state. Earlier this year, county commissioners voted to cut the department’s upcoming budget by nearly $4 million. The board had threatened deeper cuts, and Hambley took to social media to protest.

The county's 11-member board of commissioners was transformed last year when eight incumbents were defeated by a slate of challengers tied closely to a group known as Ottawa Impact, which was formed in 2021 partly in response to mask mandates in the county.

Kyle Terpstra, a Republican commissioner, resigned from his position on the board Thursday, just hours after the Hambley lawsuit was filed. He said “significant changes in my personal and professional life” led to the resignation.

Hambley sued the commissioners earlier this year for “termination in violation of public policy.” In October, the state’s appeals court ruled Hambley could be fired only for “just cause.”

But following a nearly eight-hour closed session at a Nov. 6 meeting, commissioners voted to “accept counsel’s recommendation regarding litigation and settlement activities” regarding Hambley. The settlement was later revealed to be $4 million, in return for Hambley’s resignation.

Hambley would work until at least Nov. 30 but no later than Dec. 15 under the agreement.

Nathaniel Kelly, a safety manager at an HVAC company and who has no public health experience, is in line to take over the county health department.

The county requested approval from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for Kelly to serve as acting health officer, but the state told the county it couldn’t appoint a health officer until a vacancy exists, according to a spokesperson with the department.