Public health officer in Michigan keeps her job after lengthy legal fight over COVID rules

WEST OLIVE, Mich. — A controversial public health official in Michigan will be allowed to keep her job after a lengthy legal battle with county commissioners over pandemic-era mask mandates concluded Tuesday, with the board bowing to the will of a court-ordered arbitrator.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners voted 11-0 Monday to retain Adeline Hambley as county health officer, part of a settlement to end her lawsuit against the board.

The commissioners first tried to fire Hambley in January 2023 after a conflict over COVID-19 restrictions.

But when that didn’t work, they offered her a $4 million settlement in exchange for her resignation, then rescinded the offer, saying it was only a tentative settlement agreement.

Hambley sued the commissioners, claiming her “termination was contrary to public policy.” The state appeals court ruled in October that Hambley could only be fired for “just cause.”

Instead, the case would be decided by an arbitration panel made up of three members: one chosen by Hambley, another by the province and a third by a mediator.

After more than twelve hours of mediation, the two parties reached a settlement in which Hambley would keep her job. It included a section stating that if the board tried to fire Hambley again before January 2025, the board would not have the authority to do so.

“It was definitely a priority,” said Sarah Howard, Hambley’s attorney. “You cannot predict what will happen in the future. … My client wanted nothing more than to stay and lead this department.”

“Today the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners has reached a mutual agreement, subject to court approval, to dismiss all litigation involving the health officer,” board chairman Joe Moss posted on social media after the meeting. “All legal issues between the parties will be resolved and Ms Hambley will continue in her role as health officer as previously decided by the Court of Appeal.

Public health officials are responsible for setting local public health policies. Officials who usually worked behind the scenes to manage vaccinations and water quality inspections took center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, as elected officials and members of the public frustrated by lockdowns and safety restrictions turned public health workers into politicized punching bags.