Commissioner Brian Bigelow said Tuesday he will seek the state attorney general’s opinion on whether the county manager’s severance package of more than $250,000 violated state law.
Bigelow decided to pursue the opinion after Tuesday’s meeting, in which his fellow commissioners declined to ask a judge to rule on the legality of the payout they approved for County Manager Karen Hawes.
“Next week, I’ll ask for commission consent to get a state attorney general’s opinion,” Bigelow said. “The commission won’t want to do that, but I think I can probably ask for one on my own.”
“They (the attorney general) rarely take up a single commissioner’s request, but occasionally they will and this is a hot topic,” he said.
The commission approved Hawes’ severance package last week without knowing the cost or the extent to which they were increasing the payout over and above the terms of her 2009 employment contract.
County officials have yet to disclose a dollar value, but the News-Press calculated it to be more than $250,000 through a review of Hawes’ separation agreement, employment contract and payroll records. The amount could be higher, depending on how county officials interpret portions of the separation agreement.
Hawes‘ severance package includes a $22,500 tax deferred payment and other perks that were not part of the 2009 employment contract she signed, according to The News-Press review of her contracts and payroll records.
On the heels of Hawes’ payday, County Attorney Michael Hunt on Monday sought to add benefits to his own severance package and employment contract.
Hunt writes that he wants 26 weeks of base pay — about $92,500 — and other compensation to move up his last day of work to Nov. 30, in a letter he sent to commissioners.
Hunt, earlier this month, announced his plans to resign in August for family reasons. Commissioners, however, said they wanted him to leave sooner. He’s only entitled to severance pay if he departs at their request, according to his 20ll contract.
Unlike Hawes, Hunt did not seek a payout for deferred compensation for fear it would break the law, according to his letter. His original employment contract is similar to Hawes’, in that the severance portion does not call for him to collect the tax deferred money.
“The reason I state ‘the equivalent of twenty-six weeks of base salary’ is because there may be some question as to whether my employment agreement (date March 1, 2011) is affected/impacted by Section 215.425, Florida (Statutes),” Hunt writes.
Commissioners Tammy Hall, John Manning and Frank Mann decided against pursuing a judges’ opinion on whether Hawes’ severance package broke the law. A judge could issue a declaratory judgment to settle the matter, Bigelow said.
Hall refused to comment, when The News-Press asked her why she didn’t want an independent legal authority to review Hawes’ payday.
“I choose not to engage The News-Press,” Hall said.
Deputy County Attorney Andrea Fraser said the severance package she worked out with Hawes complied with state law. She claimed that state law only applies to contracts and severance agreements made after July 2011.
“Her contract was adopted in September of 2009,” Fraser said. “You cannot retroactively impact somebody’s contractual rights you because you could (conceivably) violate their constitutional rights.”
Hunt’s employment contract, however, was also created prior to July 2011, according to the contract he signed on March 1, 2011.
Hunt said he recused himself from working on Hawes’ separation contract, in case his own resignation would cause a conflict-of-interest, he said.
In addition to the $22,500 in deferred compensation, the contract Fraser helped draw up, gives Hawes more than nine weeks of extra compensation that similarly was not specified in her 2009 employment contract.
While on leave for the more than two months, Hawes will collect her “existing rate of compensation,” according to the separation agreement.
Like Hawes, Hunt also wants to remain on the county’s payroll for about nine weeks after his last day — using sick time and vacation over that period.
During those two months, he too will collect more money than he would if the county just paid him out for the sick days and vacation time.
County policy prohibits employees from using sick time for any reason other than illness, according to county policy.
Hawes negotiated the separation agreement after Commissioner Frank Mann threatened to terminate her for the mismanagement of Medstar.
The county’s medical flight program was shut down in August. By that time, officials had failed to meet federal safety mandates for close to a year and billed for about $3.3 million worth of flights in violations of federal rules.
A lump-sum payment, to be deposited in Hawes’ bank account Jan.16, 2013, is also dictated by the separation agreement, according to the agreement that was drafted earlier this month.
Hall backs off
Hall wrote that she wanted to rescind Hawes’ severance payout, after she learned it went beyond the terms of her existing contract, in an email she sent out last week.
Hall, however, backed away from the idea at Tuesday’s meeting. She said she would need three other commissioners to join her in taking back the payout.
“I certainly could ask to rescind the contract and look for a supermajority. I’ve chosen not to,” Hall said.
Hall additionally backed off her contention that Fraser deceived her into approving the severance payment by making her think the county guaranteed it in Hawes’ initial employment contract.
She instead apologized to Fraser for not asking more specific questions.
Fraser said she didn’t understand Hall’s questions, until she met with her after the public meeting.
“Based on my understanding of her intent, than yes, there was something else I would have answered,” Fraser said.
After apologizing to Fraser, Hall apologized to the public for not doing her duty, before voting to approve the severance agreement.
“Commissioner Bigelow, you were right on that, we weren’t asking the right questions,” Hall said.
But not long after she proclaimed Bigelow was right, Hall twice attempted to stop him from asking questions about Hawes’ severance package.
Calling two separate points of order, Hall said the time to ask questions about the Hawes’ payout was last week.
While Bigelow questioned the deal and rejected it at last week’s meeting, he was not joined by any other commissioners.
Hall further objected to Bigelow’s questions about the severance payout, because she said they could violate the separation agreement the commission approved.
Commissioner Ray Judah made the same claim in his separate effort to stop Bigelow from finding out about the severance package. He, however, left the meeting before Bigelow asked to pursue a judge’s ruling on the agreement’s legality.
In approving Hawes’ separation agreement and severance payout, commissioners agree not to “make any statements, other that this agreement has been made, including but not limited to, derogatory statements.”
Hunt “strongly” advised the commission from discussing the agreement, he said, because of the clause.
As part of his own severance negotiations, Hunt wants the commission to add six weeks of severance pay to the six months he can receive under his contract, as it will settle a “dispute,” according to his letter.
Hunt writes that state law allows county officials to provide up to six weeks of severance pay in resolving a conflict, according to his letter.
Bigelow said he suspects he knows why his fellow commissioners want to shut him up, but they won’t realize their goal.
“I think they wanted to give Ms. Hawes what she wanted, without causing more pain and suffering for themselves by having to redress the issues,” Bigelow said. “This is anything but dead and anything but over, because it doesn’t matter if you shut me up, other people will speak out.”