Lee manager prepares possible exit from county government

Karen Hawes

Karen Hawes

Lee County Manager Karen Hawes spent Monday preparing to part ways with the county she’s worked in for nearly 30 years.

But Hawes said she won’t resign at Tuesday’s commission meeting unless she is asked to by a majority — at least three of the five — commissioners.

Hawes’s leadership has come under fire in recent months because of the suspension of the county’s medical helicopter program and VR Laboratories possibly submitting a fraudulent contract to the county, which was used and approved.

“This is not the way I wanted to finish my career with the county,” Hawes said. “I did not apply for this position. The board requested that I assume the responsibility (in a) 5-0 vote.”

Hawes spent Monday briefly meeting with commissioners to discuss her possible exit, although Commissioners Brian Bigelow and Tammy Hall were absent. Deputy County Attorney Andrea Fraser and John Turner, also a county attorney, sat in on the meeting.

“It wasn’t easy,” Commissioner John Manning said. “I’ve known Karen a long time. She’s a good person and has done a lot for Lee County and we will see what happens tomorrow. Hopefully it will go well and go professionally.”

If she resigns, Hawes intends her last day to be Oct. 31, although she would remain available to county staff until Jan. 9.

Commissioners Bigelow and Frank Mann have called for Hawes’s termination. A few weeks ago, Mann said unless Hawes resigned, he’d make a motion to terminate her from the county. Manning has previously said he would not vote to terminate Hawes.

“I don’t think we will move to terminate her for any reason,” Manning said. “I think we can go out with dignity and professionalism.”

The county’s air ambulance program, Medstar, was grounded in late August because the county was billing patients for services even though the program didn’t meet federal regulations. The former heads of the program said the suspension was to seek a voluntary accreditation, but that was later proved false. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating and the county is conducting an audit.

Hawes is also being scrutinized for supposedly authorizing a contract with VR Laboratories, a botanical pharmaceutical company, which received a $5 million taxpayer-supported grant and $4.7 million from tax payers, to construct a new bottling factory. It was supposed to bring 214 jobs, but has created only nine so far. Construction has ceased, a lien was put on the property and questionable facts in the contract have led to concerns about Hawes’ judgment.

She began working for the county in 1985 as a budget analyst and moved to the county manager position in 2009 after the previous county manager, Don Stilwell, left under a cloud of scandal. Under her contract, Hawes would receive her $170,000 annual salary and health insurance for a year if she resigns or is terminated.

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