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Karen Hawes
Karen Hawes / Special to news-press.com

The Lee County commission on Tuesday agreed to pay County Manager Karen Hawes more than $250,000 for resigning after the county’s medical flight program was mismanaged, according to payroll records and officials.

That amount includes a $22,500 perk that she negotiated over the past few weeks along with other special privileges, which have an undisclosed dollar amount, according to county documents, Hawes’ separation agreement and Commission Chairman John Manning.

The separation agreement commissioners approved Tuesday is more lucrative for Hawes than her 2009 employment contract stipulates.

“It was extremely, extremely generous,” Bigelow said of the payouts. “No wonder she wanted to leave.”

Hawes will collect: one year’s severance pay at $170,000, more than $37,000 while on “leave” for two months and another $23,000 in remaining vacation and sick days, according to her separation agreement, 2009 contract, county payroll records and officials.

The county attorney’s office did not return calls for comment.

The deputy county attorney who worked on Hawes’ separation agreement, Andrea Fraser, did not make it public before Tuesday’s meeting — showing it to Commissioner Brian Bigelow just 10 minutes prior to the meeting.

Commissioners did not ask for a specific dollar amount, before agreeing to the pay out in a 4-1 vote, with Bigelow dissenting.

Commissioners John Manning, Frank Mann and Bigelow said they did not know how much money the county will pay Hawes for resigning.

Hawes did not return calls and emails for comment.

Bigelow moved to skip the severance pay and fire Hawes for cause — something that is allowed under the terms of her 2009 contract.

The county wouldn’t have to pay Hawes if she was fired for any of the following reasons: neglect of duties, failure to maintain the public’s confidence, a material breach of her obligations and disregard for professional standards.

Mann, however, said the payday could spare the county a court battle.

“It’s been my experience that if you’re not able to come to some sort of an agreement, you’re almost always in litigation and that almost always costs more,” he said.

(Page 2 of 3)

Hawes’ handling of the county’s medical flight program, Medstar, prompted Mann to call for her to either resign or the commission to fire her.

Medstar failed to meet federal safety mandates for close to a year before Hawes authorized its shutdown.

County officials also violated federal rules by billing patients for $3.3 million in medical flights — a transgression that spurred a probe by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Those aspects of the program’s mismanagement, however, weren’t revealed until The News-Press presented county officials with evidence they occurred.

Hawes’ subordinates in the public safety program, former director John Wilson and ex-EMS chief Kim Dickerson, claimed they grounded the rescue helicopters to obtain a voluntary accreditation.

Wilson and Dickerson denied the program had problems with the FAA, as Hawes stayed quiet.

By leaving her post in Medstar’s fallout, Hawes joins Wilson and Dickerson. The two were also under fire for their roles in the fiasco when they abruptly departed their jobs.

While Mann agreed to accept the terms of Hawes’ resignation, he said, he didn’t know that the $22,500 deferred compensation payout was above what her employment contracted stipulated.

Fraser publicly claimed at Tuesday’s meeting that the separation agreement was nothing more than what the commission had agreed to in Hawes’ contract.

After the meeting, however, Fraser admitted that Hawes had negotiated the deferred compensation just before resigning and it was not part of her contract.

“She negotiated that with Commissioner Mann,” Fraser said.

Mann said Monday afternoon that he had not seen Hawes separation agreement. Manning also denied involvement in crafting it, saying the county attorney’s office created the agreement with Hawes’ attorney.

“I merely got the two parties together to come up with a deal based on the county attorney’s office interpretation (of her 2009 contract) plus her request,” Manning said. “The agreement was fair and equitable to both parties.”

(Page 3 of 3)

Bigelow said he asked Fraser for the dollar amount — when she first presented the agreement to him 10 minutes before Tuesday’s meeting — but she didn’t provide the number.

A constant critic of Hawes, Bigelow also took issue with the sick time that she can cash in. Other employees are prohibited from collecting their full pay for unused sick days, he said.

“I think there might be a quite lucrative and unfair separation request by the county manager,” Bigelow said. “I do believe it’s indicative of this county manager, what applies to her and her friends is one standard, and what applies to the staff as a whole is another.”

The separation agreement notes: “(Hawes) acknowledges and agrees that the payments referenced … above are not ordinary obligations paid by the employer to its employees.”

County officials could increase Hawes’ resignation pay above $250,000, depending on how they interpret her separation agreement.

The agreement states that Hawes will continue to collect her “existing rate of compensation” over the more than two months between her last day of work, Oct. 31, and her “termination date,” Jan. 9, 2013.

Hawes’s compensation includes: a $500 a month auto allowance, six weeks of vacation every year, holiday pay and sick time.

Her separation agreement fails to specify whether she will rack up those benefits — while using some of her sick time and vacation — in November, December and January.

Hawes’ separation agreement and contract also call for her to collect the “the equivalent” of a year’s cost of COBRA health care insurance.

On average, COBRA costs $13,000 a year, according to cobrainsurancebenefits.org. Hawes’ husband also works for the county and the spouses of county workers are eligible for county health insurance.

Additionally, the separation agreement does not to specify whether Hawes will receive deferred compensation based on this year’s rate of $22,500 or a different amount for 2013. Hawes’ deferred compensation increased by $7,500 in 2012 — she collected $15,000 last year, according to her assistant.

The county will pay Hawes on Jan. 16, according to the separation agreement.

At next week’s meeting, Manning said he believes the commission will select an interim county manager and begin the search for a replacement.

“I think we need to get back to the business of governing Lee County,” Manning said.

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