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Three commissioners have been critical of Lee County Manager Karen Hawes’ performance, but it remains to be seen whether those grievances translate into the three votes needed to terminate her at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

Commissioners Frank Mann and Brian Bigelow have expressed willingness to remove Hawes, while Commissioner Tammy Hall has yet to say if she’ll cast the vote that sends Lee County in search of a new top executive.

Hall said the county’s lead administrator fails to meet “basic objectives” at times and “needs improvement” in the annual performance evaluation she filed earlier this month.

“I have concerns on her ability to take Lee County forward in a positive manner to ensure accountability and to make timely decisions,” Hall writes. “I have concerns on her ability to evaluate issues and who she brings in from the outside to assist her in these evaluations.”

Hall did not return calls for comment Friday.

Her words came in the wake of revelations the county’s medical flight program was mismanaged in the run up to its suspension in August.

Hawes stayed silent as her subordinates in the Public Safety Department claimed the suspension was merely an effort to obtain a voluntary accreditation from and out-of-state company.

It wasn’t until The News-Press presented county officials with proof the rescue helicopter program had failed to meet federal safety mandates and county officials violated federal rules by billing patients for $3.3 million that they confessed.

Hawes’ handling of Medstar prompted Mann to call for her to resign before Tuesday’s meeting, when he said he would hold a vote to terminate her.

The flight program’s federal rule violations, failure to meet safety standards and personnel problems date back almost a year.

“The county manager should have been able to deal with those had she known of them,” Mann said. “Had she not known of them, she should have before it got to the point of a total shutdown.”

“All of this has cost the county in the neighborhood of $3 million for improper or illegal or unauthorized billing,” Mann said.

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If Hawes’ resigns, the county will have to pay Hawes $170,000, plus health insurance benefits for the next year. She makes $185,000 a year, including deferred compensation the county pays out, according to her 2009 contract.

Should the commission terminate Hawes with cause, the county does not have to pay her, according to the 2009 contract she signed.

Incompetency, insubordination and failure to maintain the public’s confidence are among reasons Hawes could be fired for cause, according to her contract.

Hawes said she was told about the county’s failure to meet federal safety mandates several days before she authorized Medstar’s shutdown.

Hawes, however, said she didn’t understand what her public safety directors meant when they told her about their plans to publicly claim they suspended the program to seek voluntary accreditation.

After six weeks of scrutiny, Hawes took action. She called meetings with then-public safety director John Wilson, who submitted his resignation, and his second in command, EMS Chief Kim Dickerson, whom she placed on administrative leave. Dickerson resigned the next week.

“I find that Ms. Hawes will take accountability, but is challenged in addressing the solutions in a timely manner,” Hall writes in her evaluation.

While Hall was critical of Hawes, her evaluation stopped short of the appraisal Mann issued, in which he assesses the county manager “does not meet” requirements.

“Ms. Hawes’ many years of services to Lee County have been exemplary, but for the last two,” Mann writes.

Neither commission Chairman John Manning nor Commissioners Ray Judah turned in their evaluations of Hawes for the yearlong period that ended last month.

Manning has expressed support for Hawes, while Judah has not voiced criticism of her performance in the wake of Medstar.

Manning stated he has completed his evaluation for this year, but he has yet to turn it in to the county’s Human Resources Department. He also declined to release it to The News-Press until he has a chance to discuss it with Hawes, according to an email from his office.

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Judah did not return requests for comment.

What about Judah?

Judah, who will soon leave the commission after losing in the Republican primary, gave Hawes a glowing evaluation last year – commending her leadership and management skills.

He voiced one critique in that Hawes “could expand her vision concerning economic opportunities county wide.”

Earlier that year, Hawes’ administration recommended approving a $5 million grant application to VR Labs.

The health drink manufacturer proposed building a bottling plant and creating 214 jobs with the money.

But construction on the facility has stopped, as VR Labs was sued by its general contractor, nine sub-contractors have filed liens and its bottling equipment supplier has refused to deliver for lack of payment.

With $4.7 million of the tax dollars spent, only nine people are on the company’s payroll – including a former lieutenant governor, now VR Labs CEO, Jeff Kottkamp.

Hall is poised to publicly discuss VR Labs before she considers the vote that could terminate Hawes, according to an email she sent commissioners last week.

Among the nine county staffers she summoned to Tuesday’s commission meeting, two played roles in the VR Labs’ grant – Economic Development Office Director Jim Moore and former economic development office attorney Glen Salyer.

Hall, however, did not call anyone from the county’s Public Safety Department to the meeting to talk about Medstar.

Unlucky '13?

Even if Hawes leaves Tuesday’s meeting with her job intact, two new commissioners will be seated after November’s election.

Cecil Pendergrass — the Republican running to replace Bigelow — said he doesn’t know enough about the subject to express thoughts one way or another.

Larry Kiker, the Republican choice to replace Judah, said he expects the topic of Hawes’ employment to be resolved before the new commission is sworn in.

“I don’t think this is going to be a decision that I’ll be making,” Kiker said.

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