Lawyer wants public to see Ottawa health officer ruling

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The attorney for Ottawa County’s top health officer is asking the court to release the video and transcript of a judge’s ruling that the county would not be bound to a $4 million employment dispute settlement.

On Thursday, Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley’s lawyer Sarah Howard filed a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision last week to close the courtroom for an evidentiary hearing on the matter. Rather, Howard said, the court should “immediately” publish a video and transcript of its ruling, even if it does not publicize the entirety of the hearing.

Judge denies $4M settlement after closed hearing in Ottawa health officer settlement case

Howard argued it was important to release the information because she said an Ottawa County commissioner and the county’s lawyer misrepresented the decision to the public.

“As predicted, Defendants and defense counsel have made various statements to the media about the Court’s decision that are false and at odds with this Court’s factual findings and actual decision,” Howard wrote in a brief supporting the motion, which she provided to News 8.

The court on Friday denied Howard’s motion to force the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners to go along with a deal that included a $4 million payout. In exchange, Hambley would leave her position and Deputy Health Officer Marcia Mansaray would resign with a severance of one year’s pay.

Ottawa health officer asks court to enforce $4 million settlement

At the time, Howard said she and her client believed the deal had been reached with a Nov. 6 motion in which the board voted to accept its lawyer’s recommendations on “litigation and settlement activities,” but that county leaders tried to back out after there was negative public response to details reported in the press. The county’s attorney, David Kallman, said nobody ever agreed to anything.

In Thursday’s brief, Howard wrote that the court ruled against her “based on a finding that the motion made by Commission Chair Joe Moss at the November 6, 2023 hearing was too ambiguous to ratify the Board’s agreement to the terms that the parties negotiated.” According to Howard, the court found that offers and counteroffers were made, a majority of the board approved the terms of an agreement and the commissioners told their counsel to create a written agreement with those terms — but because the motion in the public portion of the meeting was ambiguous, the settlement wasn’t enforceable.

Howard cited statements from Kallman to reporters calling the settlement “a phantom agreement,” and from Moss that the court ruled the settlement was “a $4 million lie.”

Neither of these statements, Howard said, are true.

“The Court’s ruling found that Plaintiff and her counsel were negotiating in good faith, that agreed terms had been reached and Defendants directed defense counsel to write up those terms in a written settlement agreement, and that Defendants backed out of the agreement
reached after November 6 once Defendants changed their minds,” she wrote. “…The Court certainly said nothing that would support a characterization of the ruling — and by implication, witness testimony — that the terms of the $4 million deal were a ‘phantom agreement’ or that Plaintiff told a ‘$4 million lie’ ‘which never happened.'”

Howard said it wasn’t simply a case of her opponents wanting to maintain secrecy.

“It is that they wish to tell a false and misleading story about negotiations in closed session without the public’s ability to have transparency as to what occurred,” she wrote.

She said the public had a right to know whether the board tried to settle the case for a $4 million payout, even if it was ruled not legally enforceable.

Howard asked the court to hear arguments on the motion Feb. 14.

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