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


WEST OLIVE, Mich. (AP) — An embattled public health officer in Michigan will get to keep her job, after a lengthy legal fight 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 conflict over COVID-19 restrictions.

But when they were unable to, they offered her a $4 million settlement in return for her resignation, then rescinded the offer, saying it was only a tentative settlement agreement.

Hambley sued the commissioners over her “termination in violation of public policy.” The state’s appeals court ruled in October that Hambley could be fired only for “just cause.”

Instead, the matter would be decided by an arbitration panel consisting of three members: one chosen by Hambley, another by the county and a third by a mediator.

After more than 12 hours of mediation, the two sides agreed on a settlement in which Hambley would keep her job. It included a section stating that if the board tries to fire Hambley again before January 2025, the board would not have the power to do so.

“It was absolutely a priority,” said Sarah Howard, Hambley’s attorney. “There’s no predicting what’s going to happen in the future. ... My client has wanted nothing more than to stay and lead this department.”

“Today, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners came to a mutual agreement, subject to court approval, to end all litigation involving the health officer,” Board Chair Joe Moss posted on social media following 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 Appeals Court.

Public health officers are responsible for setting local public health policy. Officials who usually worked behind the scenes managing immunizations and water quality inspections found themselves center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, as elected officials and members of the public who were frustrated with lockdowns and safety restrictions turned public health workers into politicized punching bags.

The Associated Press