Potential change in Ottawa County public health officer sparks concerns


GVL / Meghan Tripp

Jonathan Carroll, Staff Writer

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners is poised to make many changes to current policy. One change that has become particularly controversial is the commissioners’ move to replace its current public health officer

The circumstances for the change are leaving many county residents unsure about the future protocols and mandates relating to health in the county. 

In January, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners started to take steps to remove the current public health officer, Adeline Hambley. This action was in response to the mask mandates that had been implemented for public Pre-K to sixth grade schools, a mandate that has been expired for more than a year.

The majority of board members are backed by the conservative organization Ottawa Impact. This new majority is looking to make several sweeping changes, including removing Hambley and replacing her with Nathaniel Kelly.

Hambley has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in business administration, both from Grand Valley State University. Hambley has worked in the Department of Public Health for about 19 years and has been the environmental health manager since 2011. She was appointed by the previous board to take on the role in December of 2022 following the retirement of the former Public Health Officer, Lisa Stefanovsky.

Kelly also meets the academic requirements for the position, with master’s degrees in public health and occupational health from Columbia Southern University, an online for-profit college. 

Kelly is a Safety Manager at Pleune Service Company, a Grand Rapids-based commercial HVAC repair company. Kelly is known for his anti-mask mandate opinions and his vocal distaste for Governor Whitmer’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. In November of 2021, Kelly appeared in a parody video mocking a sign language interpreter.

“I look forward to bringing the health department into a fold where we run on completely facts and technology-driven data,” Kelly said during the Jan. 3 meeting.

There are multiple concerns about what Kelly’s potential appointment could mean for public health in Ottawa County based on views he has shared publicly in the past, including his advocacy for the drug Ivermectin and the use of neti pots in health kits to treat COVID-19. He also said that “…asymptomatic individuals do not transmit disease.”

These sweeping changes come as a surprise to many because the board brought these changes without publicly sharing the agenda before the meeting. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is looking into how this impacted Ottawa County residents’ right to participate in local decision-making.

“It is crazy seeing someone fill a position that is known for science and then completely ignoring every study and test done to prove what is effective in keeping people safe,” said Ian Durst, an allied health science major at GVSU.

GVSU’s Department of Public Health declined the request for a statement because of Ottawa County’s connection to the public health program.

“Ottawa County Health Department is an extremely valuable partner to our program of public health,” said Ranelle Brew Full professor for the public health program at GVSU and the Masters in Public Health (MPH) program director. “I, and our entire faculty team, will respectfully DECLINE speaking on behalf of what is happening there at this time. It would not be professionally appropriate for us to comment in this space.”

The state of Michigan still would have to approve Kelly’s appointment before anything can truly move forward. Hambley has been demoted to an internship role in the public health office until further notice.