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Karen Hawes
Karen Hawes
Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann Sr. First elected to the commission in 2006. Re-elected in 2008. / Special to The News-Press

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Lee County Manager Karen Hawes can resign with a year’s severance pay or risk termination at next week’s commission meeting.

Commissioner Frank Mann asked Hawes to step down, before he looks for a majority of the commission to terminate her at Tuesday’s meeting.

Mann made his request in response to Hawes’ handling of Medstar. She authorized the medical flight program’s suspension last month and stayed silent as her subordinates misled the public about the mismanagement that led them to ground the rescue helicopters.

“The abrupt shutdown of a life saving service is critically important and it’s critically significant in the way you handle such,” Mann said. “It should have never been allowed to happen.

“Next week, at this meeting, it is my intention to offer a motion to terminate the county manger’s contract, which I will do with great sadness and reluctance.”

Hawes declined to comment Tuesday.

“I can’t comment, under legal advice,” she said after the meeting.

Hawes would become the third top administrator to lose their position in the wake of revelations that Medstar failed to meet federal safety mandates and county officials improperly billed for $3.3 million in medical flights.

Former public safety director John Wilson and assistant public safety director Kim Dickerson abruptly departed the county in recent weeks. The two were under mounting scrutiny for their supervision of the program and handling of its shutdown.

If Hawes resigns at Mann’s request, the county will have to pay her a year’s salary — $170,000, according to her contract.

But if the commission terminates Hawes with “cause,” the county can forgo the payout, according to the 2009 contract she signed.

According to her contract, any of the following would constitute “cause” to terminated Hawes without severance pay:

• Conduct or actions that reflect poorly upon her competency.

• Failure to maintain public confidence in county government.

• Neglect of duties.

• Insubordination.

The commission appointed Hawes to head up county administration in September 2009. She replaced Donald Stilwell who lost his job amid controversy over some racy email he sent out and his son-in-law’s illegal real estate dealings.

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At 60-years-old, Hawes isn’t old enough to start receiving retirement benefits through the state.

According to Florida Retirement System’s website, former county employees have to be at least 62 years old or have 30 years of service before they can start collecting their pensions.

Hawes began working for the county 27 years ago in 1985, according to a biography posted on the county’s website.

Hawes also would have to hold her post for two more years before she could collect a pension that’s based on her pay as county manager, according to FRS’s website.

Florida takes five years of the highest pay a pensioner collected and averages it to calculate benefits, according to FRS’s website. Hawes’ contract calls for a term of five years, expiring in 2014.

In addition to Medstar, county management faces a growing controversy over the $4.7 million it paid to a so-called health drink manufacturer.

The company, VR Labs, was supposed to build a bottling plant that would create 214 jobs. But construction on the facility has come to a halt with only nine people on the company’s payroll.

A contractor hired to build the facility has sued VR Labs and subcontractors have filed liens for the work they did.

The resume VR labs submitted to the county also has come under fire for its untruths, and the county’s vetting process leading up to the multimillion award was suspicious.

“I won’t go into VR labs, that has been much discussed also with inadequate responses from our county (management),” Mann said.

Commission candidate Larry Kiker, who will likely win the commission’s district 3 seat this November after beating Ray Judah in the primary, said he thinks Mann’s request is fair.

“We’ve just had one mess after another lately,” Kiker said. “There’s got to be an end to this. I think people are looking for ways to bring this whole thing to an end.”

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