Commissioner Brian Bigelow said Thursday Lee County’s top staffer violated the very charter that empowers her, as well as the commission, when she put a stop to Medstar.
In an email to other commissioners, Bigelow asked the county attorney to show him the “charter language” that authorized County Manager Karen Hawes to eliminate the program outside a public forum and without the commission’s consent.
“Medstar was approved and appropriated by the board and can only be undone by an act of the board, not the county manager,” Bigelow said. “She has now committed an act of insubordination by eliminating Medstar.”
Commission Chairman John Manning instructed County Attorney Michael Hunt to send his opinion to all of the commissioners, according to an email. Manning did not return calls to his cellphone.
Hawes privately gave public safety managers the go-ahead to terminate the program’s director and three pilots last month.
County officials later announced the program had been suspended for six to nine months, but are now considering handing over the service to a private company.
The county charter allows Hawes to eliminate positions, but by terminating all the positions, Bigelow said, Hawes effectively ended the program and usurped the commission’s authority.
Hawes did not return calls to her office and cellphone.
When asked whether Hawes acted within her authority, Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz said, “I think that’s where we would like a legal opinion.”
At a Sept. 11 meeting, Commissioner Tammy Hall voiced her displeasure with Hawes’ handling of Medstar.
Hall recounted the closed-door meeting she had with Hawes and county staff before the program was suspended.
“At that point what are you supposed to say, ‘No, no, you’re not stopping the services?’ ” Hall said. “There’s no other option available to us. We’re being told what your decision is ... but we’re not part of that decision.”
Hall did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Commissioners voiced little concern about the program’s suspension until after administrators admitted they failed to meet federal safety standards and wrongfully billed more than $3 million for medical flights.
Bigelow said Hawes’ actions leave the commission with no other option than to rehire the pilots and reinstate the program, which the commission funded Wednesday with more than $3 million.
But he fears Hunt will issue an opinion that doesn’t pass legal muster and the county could face stiff penalties if the terminated pilots sue.
“Perhaps there’s a way they will spin this legally; attorneys have opinions that are often different from the judges they go in front of,” Bigelow said. “I hope we don’t get that, because it could get worse in court.”