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Interim Lee County Manager Karen Hawes sits for a live chat interview at The News-Press on Thursday, May 7.
Interim Lee County Manager Karen Hawes sits for a live chat interview at The News-Press on Thursday, May 7. / Todd Stubing/news-press.com

Lee County’s top administrator Monday expressed her desire to resign, putting off a commission vote to terminate her.

In an 11th-hour meeting with Commissioner Frank Mann, Hawes said she needs one more week to plan an “exit strategy” with her attorney and family members, Mann said.

The commission today was set to hold a vote that could have fired Hawes — a measure Mann called for her because of her handling of the county’s medical flight program, Medstar

“It would be in everyone’s best interest if we could find a way to make a change in the county manager without having to go to the Draconian step of an outright termination,” Commissioner Frank Mann said.

Before he threatened to have her terminated her last week, Hawes told Mann she wouldn’t consider resigning, he said.

Hawes did not return calls for comment Monday. She declined to comment last week under “legal advice” and declined to provide the name of her attorney.

If Hawes resigns, the county will pay her a year’s salary, $170,000, according to the contract she signed in 2009. But she needs to hold the position for two more years before she collects a retirement that’s based on that pay rate, according to the Florida Retirement System’s website.

The commission could skip the severance pay if they terminate Hawes for cause, according to her contract.

Hawes suspended the county’s medical flight program in August, after learning it had failed to meet federal safety mandates. She remained silent as her public safety directors claimed the suspension was designed to seek a voluntary accreditation and denied there were other problems.

The News-Press later uncovered the program had failed to meet the safety requirements and county officials billed patients for $3.3 million in violation of federal rules — triggering an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

While Mann doesn’t plan to a call a vote to terminate Hawes today, Commissioner Tammy Hall still wants to discuss Medstar.

None of the nine people she asked to attend the meeting, however, are from the county’s Public Safety Department, which was tasked with overseeing the medical flight program and billing for the service.

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Hall also wants to take up VR Labs today. She’s asked two county staffers, who were involved in the matter, to attend the meeting — Economic Development Office Director Jim Moore and former economic development office attorney Glen Salyer.

“We obviously don’t agree on what the issues are with VR labs,” Hall said. “Some commissioners are concerned, others think everything is great, and we have a county manager and county attorney who aren’t answering questions”

Hawes’ administration recommended giving $5 million to the purported health drink manufacturer in 2011 — a request the commission approved.

The company was supposed to build a bottling plant and create 214 jobs with the money by 2016.

With $4.7 million of the tax dollars spent, building has stopped and nine people are on the company’s payroll.

County staffers recommended giving the company $5 million; VR Lab’s grant application, however, was misleaing: It claimed was doing business as an established manufacturer, Vitrarich.

Despite using the other company’s logo, address and financial projections in the county application, VR Labs wasn’t associated with Vitarich.

VR Labs was formed one week before it applied for the county money.

Commission Chairman John Manning said it would have been mistake to terminate Hawes at today’s meeting.

“If Karen decides to leave county government, I would hope that she would be given that opportunity,” Manning said.

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