Ottawa Impact broadens control in new communications lockdown mandate

OTTAWA COUNTY — Another political storm is brewing in Ottawa County — this time over how much control Administrator John Gibbs should have over public health communications.

The most recent order sent to county employees from Gibbs requires that all media interviews, website updates, social posts, press releases and newsletters from all departments be subject to administrative review, with some notable exemptions.

County Administrator John Gibbs looks through papers Tuesday, Jan. 10, in West Olive.
County Administrator John Gibbs looks through papers Tuesday, Jan. 10, in West Olive.

Ottawa County Health Officer Adeline Hambley, however, is fighting to add her department to that exempted list, arguing matters of public health should be beyond the administrators’ scope.

Hambley has an ongoing lawsuit against the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners over claims Ottawa Impact-linked commissioners have repeatedly interfered with her ability to do her job and wrongfully “demoted” her in an attempt to appoint their preferred candidate, Nathaniel Kelly, a COVID-19 minimalist who has no experience in public health.

Ottawa Impact is a far-right fundamentalist group created by now-Board President Joe Moss and Vice President Sylvia Rhodea after they unsuccessfully sued the previous board and county health officer over COVID-19 mitigation mandates in 2020 and 2021.

After they exhausted their legal options, they targeted seats on the board in 2022, recruiting like-minded candidates who agreed “traditional Republicans” weren’t enforcing true conservative policies. They successfully defeated enough incumbents in the August primary to win eight seats on the 11-member board (two have since publicly left the group).

From dictating to Hambley that Ottawa County will not issue any health orders that "overstep parental rights" to erroneously claiming the county's health department sponsored Grand Valley State University’s recent Sex Ed Week to refusing to approve federal grant-funded mental health positions and state-funded nonprofit projects, the OI commissioners have been laser-focused on the health department since taking office at the beginning of the year.

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Hambley sued on Feb. 13, days after Moss made statements on a conservative West Michigan radio show claiming the health department was "promoting radicalized sexual content.”

Hambley asked the court to declare her the rightfully appointed health officer — she's recognized as such by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services — without any “interim” designation or demotion, and find the commissioners may not appoint Kelly, a health and safety manager at a Grand Rapids-area HVAC company.

Ottawa County Health Officer Adeline Hambley leaves the courtroom Friday, March 31, 2023.
Ottawa County Health Officer Adeline Hambley leaves the courtroom Friday, March 31, 2023.

On April 18, a Muskegon circuit court judge granted Hambley a preliminary injunction that allows her to remain in the role until a trial can take place later this year.

The Michigan Court of Appeals denied the commissioners the right to appeal the lower court’s ruling prior to a trial. It's possible, though unlikely, the COA could grant a stay of the lower court ruling or grant permission for an interlocutory appeal, where a ruling by a trial court is appealed while other aspects of the case proceed.

The first sign of contention over who controls public health communications surfaced in February after the GVSU event — and has been building for months.

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According to a statement provided to MLive by Ottawa County Department of Public Health Communications Specialist Alison Clark on Feb. 9, the health department requested that GVSU remove the department’s logo “because it gave the appearance that the department is a sponsor of this event, and it is not. OCDPH did not contribute any funding for this event."

Hours after providing the statement to MLive, Clark asked her words be retracted. When asked why, she told MLive it was at the request of Gibbs.

Commissioner Joe Moss listens to public comment during the board's meeting Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
Commissioner Joe Moss listens to public comment during the board's meeting Tuesday, May 23, 2023.

On Feb. 21, Hambley appeared before the board urging them to approve an agreement for the Community Health Needs Assessment, a collaborative effort by the health department, local hospitals and several other entities to identify and define local health issues, concerns and needs. The measure was approved May 9 after several delays, and after Moss and Rhodea explored ways to cancel or alter a contract they already approved in January.

On Feb. 28, the board altered the resolution that appointed Hambley to the position in December. Moss and Rhodea, along with corporate legal counsel Jack Jordan of Kallman Legal Group, assured other commissioners at the meeting the "correction" was merely a matter of cleaning up the record.

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On March 2, Hambley successfully obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the board from firing her, later replaced by the preliminary injunction. Eight days later, OI commissioners used the newly altered resolution to challenge Hambley's legal standing as the official health officer.

On March 31, a hearing took place before Muskegon County’s 14th Circuit Court Judge Jenny McNeill after all Ottawa Circuit Court judges recused themselves.

While both sides awaited the judge’s decision, Clark issued a press release April 11 announcing the county health department received a national honor for its ability to plan for, respond to and recover from public health emergencies and disasters. In addition, OCDPH received an award from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for “significant contributions toward the health and well-being of Michigan citizens in the policy arena at the local or state level.”

More: Amid lawsuit, Ottawa County health department recognized for emergency response

The following day, County Communications Manager Shannon Felgner emailed Clark, along with managers in the parks, planning, community mental health and the Community Action Agency departments, instructing them to handle media releases differently.

In an April 12 email provided to The Sentinel, Felgner tells the employees to “send all department press releases to me for review by county administrator prior to sending. A minimum of 24 hours prior to the anticipated send time is requested.” She goes on the thank them “for your understanding as we all adjust to leadership changes here in Ottawa County.”

On April 13, Felgner sent another email saying Gibbs wanted to implement a system to manage all social media posts through his office.

McNeill issued her order granting Hambley a preliminary injuction on April 18.

During a health and human services committee meeting that same day, Moss and Rhodea acknowledged the health department’s recent accolades but then seemed to criticize the National Association of County and City Health Officials for promoting what Rhodea said were inappropriate policies, such as comprehensive sexual health education, health equity, social justice, climate change, police violence and racism.

“Your awards are great in many respects. It definitely shows hard work and effort and much of what is done there is great,” Rhodea said. “I do get a little concerned when I look at some of their policies, so I’m hopeful that we have independent thought that goes on at a local level.”

She went on to label some of NACCHO’s policies "radical."

“On sexual health education, they advocate for comprehensive sexuality education and that’s radical sex ed that is being pushed into our schools. I know from personal experience here in our county that our health department has been involved in advocating for that within our local school districts.”

Moss went on to read a lengthy letter penned by U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, to NACCHO’s CEO Lori Tremmel Freeman, telling her the COVID-19 mitigation measures enacted in 2020-2021 negatively affected thousands of school-aged children.

By May 10, another email from Felgner expanded Gibbs’ orders to include most county departments.

“As a growing organization, we are transitioning toward centralized communications to ensure consistent messaging and best practices,” Felgner wrote. “This system is common, particularly with larger organizations and private industries.”

Felgner goes on to instruct the employees to “coordinate all media interviews with me prior to answering any questions” and goes on to outline a protocol for departments to follow if presented with a media request.

All current members of Ottawa Impact and Gibbs have never responded to requests for comment by The Sentinel.

Felgner also said Gibbs’ office would now monitor and approve website updates, social media posts, press and media releases and newsletters.

Hambley responded to Felgner and Gibbs on May 23, saying there were exemptions made to other departments — but the health department was noticeably omitted.

“I noticed that the sheriff, register of deeds, clerk, treasurer, etc. were not included in these requirements. I would assume it is because these positions are created by state statute and have defined responsibility over the operations of their respective departments.”

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Hambley said the health department is also established under state statute and therefore should be exempted from Gibbs’ mandate in order to serve the public health in cases of emergency.

“As we strive to prevent disease, prolong life and promote public health, it is crucial to communicate directly with the public without delay,” Hambley wrote in the email provided to The Sentinel. “Local public health is expected to provide both the media and the public with timely, accurate information and answers about public health, disease prevention and outbreaks.”

Hambley said the health department needs to have immediate access to the public.

“As an appointed official with clearly defined statutory authority as well as communication requirements that do not fit into these procedures, the health officer position should not be included in the list of officials subject to the new rules,” Hambley wrote.

“I will continue to work cooperatively with county administration to share media releases, communications and outbreak information, but as a step to inform, not to approve.”

The same day Hambley responded to Gibbs and Felgner, a guest column authored by deputy health officer Marcia Mansaray that appeared in The Sentinel claimed Gibbs and Moss are trying to “control the flow of information about what they are doing.”

She wrote the communications order from Gibbs “significantly hampers (formerly) trusted department heads and their trained communications staff, who are subject matter experts and who were used to keeping county administration informed and equipped.”

“Decades of intentionally established trust and respect between departments and local media are now being eroded, and it is the residents of this county who will bear the harmful outcomes of what will likely become censorship and discrimination,” she wrote in the op-ed.

Mansaray revealed in her writing that she informed the Michigan Attorney General’s Office about her concerns regarding how the county, and its new corporate counsel Kallman Legal Group, are handling Freedom of Information Act requests.

She referenced two FOIA requests made in February by The Sentinel, one of which pertained to the health department, saying department officials were never notified of the request. The Sentinel was later informed — without health department input — that the request would cost an estimated $3,000 and take six months to fulfill.

Mansaray said, shortly after The Sentinel’s requests, other FOIAs the county received were forwarded to her department that were similar or larger in scope, but that corporate counsel Jack Jordan assured the filers that their requests would be fulfilled within 10-14 days and for little cost.

“Interestingly, these FOIA requests were from vocal supporters of Ottawa Impact who frequently give public comment at board of commissioners meetings,” Mansaray wrote to the AG’s Office.

The office, which investigated Ottawa Impact for alleged Michigan Open Meetings Act violations earlier this year, has not responded to The Sentinel’s request for comment on this story.

On Wednesday, May 31, Clark issued a news release urging residents to receive mpox vaccinations after a recent cluster of cases in Chicago.

More: AG: Ottawa Impact violated spirit of OMA, stronger transparency laws needed

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When asked for comment on this article, Clark issued a statement from the health department:

“Local health departments have a duty to prevent disease, prolong life, and promote the public health of citizens, as established in the Constitution of the State of Michigan, and as defined in Michigan Law. Providing relevant and accurate information to the public and media, and providing prompt responses to inquiries about public health, disease prevention, and health threats is crucial to the health and safety of our community.

"The Ottawa County Department of Public Health will continue to carry out our duties and responsibilities, as outlined here, to assure conditions that promote and protect health for everyone in Ottawa County.”

County Administrator John Gibbs speaks with members of the public duiring the board's meeting Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in West Olive.
County Administrator John Gibbs speaks with members of the public duiring the board's meeting Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in West Olive.

Although Gibbs and Moss have not publicly commented on why the changes have been enacted, Gibbs indicated a possible long-term strategy Friday, June 2, when he released the agenda for Tuesday's upcoming Finance and Administration Committee meeting.

Gibbs is asking the committee to approve and forward to the board of commissioners a proposal to enhance an existing full-time position to become a communications director, which would cost the county an additional $20,353.

All committees and the larger board are under Ottawa Impact's control, so the measure is expected to be approved.

In March, Gibbs also asked for and received a boosted executive aide position after he described the administrator role as "like drinking through a firehose."

The two enhanced positions combined will increase costs for the county over the next year by nearly $60,000.

— Sarah Leach is executive editor of The Holland Sentinel. Contact her at Follow her on Twitter @SentinelLeach.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Ottawa Impact broadens control in new communications lockdown mandate