FORT MYERS — As an internal investigation continues into the troubled Medstar program, Lee County’s public safety director John Wilson resigned effective immediately Friday and his second-in-command was placed on paid leave.
Wilson, 63, submitted a one-sentence notice of retirement letter Friday, the day he had a closed-door meeting with County Manager Karen Hawes.
Hawes wasn’t available for comment whether she asked for him to step down or if he did so on his own accord.
Wilson worked for the county for 27 years and became director of public safety in 1993. He was earning $103,799 yearly.
His deputy director, Kim Dickerson, was placed on paid administrative leave from her $95,000-a-year-job, which was “done in the best interest of (Dickerson) and the agency,” according to an email sent to Lee commissioners by Joan LaGuardia, communications manager for the Department of Community Development.
Lee County commissioners weren’t surprised by the personnel development, considering it came to light several weeks ago that the medical helicopter program had wrongfully billed patients and an insurer $3 million in transports without the proper credentials.
“All of this unfortunate saga came under his watch and the buck has to stop somewhere and that is the most likely place,” Commissioner Frank Mann said of Wilson’s decision to step down. “In fact, I’m a little surprised it took this long for our county manager (to act). I have mixed emotions about this. Mr. Wilson has a long and exemplary record with Lee County. It’s unfortunate he has to leave under this cloud.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Medstar and was on site this week to collect records. Lee County Clerk of Courts Charlie Green is conducting an audit.
What set Medstar’s fallout in motion was an announcement Aug. 21 by Dickerson and Wilson that they were grounding the helicopter program to pursue a voluntary national accreditation without disclosing the safety and billing problems.
After media inquiries, Hawes admitted two weeks ago to the County Commission that she knew four days before the program was grounded that Medstar had been in violation of FAA safety standards and was improperly billing patients.
Lee Commission Chairman John Manning said it’s the county manager’s role to decide what action to take with Dickerson while the investigation is ongoing. Wilson had been a loyal employee for 27 years, he said.
“I think these moves are appropriate and we will move forward to make the best of the situation,” Manning said. “You have to sift through all of the details of the Medstar situation and we are doing that. We still have a ways to go.”
Mann said he’s hopeful that the clerk’s audit will be wrapped up in two or three weeks and there’s no telling the FAA’s time frame.
Mann said he also learned Friday morning that Aeromed helicopter’s mechanical problems, when it couldn’t respond to a Sept. 21 auto accident in Estero, was because moisture got into the helicopter.
He said he was told the helicopter sits outside, exposed to rain, while the grounded Medstar helicopters are inside the Page Field hangar. Aeromed has been retained by the county to respond to emergency helicopter needs. Aeromed officials couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
Wilson also headed the county’s hurricane response program for years, including during Hurricane Charley in 2004, but Mann said he has no concerns that side of the county’s public safety program will be compromised by his departure.
“That is not an issue,” he said. “There are other people who can handle that responsibility. I am not concerned at all about that.”
Also on Friday, county officials put out a solicitation to the medical aviation industry for proposals to operate an emergency response helicopter program in the county. The issue is to be discussed during a Nov. 5 County Commission management and planning meeting.
Mann said he favors exploring privatizing the medical helicopter program because it could be far less costly than maintaining the county program.
In the interim, Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz will serve as acting public safety director. Deputy chief of ground EMS operations Scott Tuttle will serve as acting deputy public safety director.
Lee County's public safety director, John Wilson, retired Friday morning while an internal probe continues into problems with the the Medstar air ambulance program, county officials announced.
In addition, the deputy director of the public safety department, Kim Dickerson, has been placed on paid administrative leave.
"This is being done in the best interest of (Dickerson) and the agency," Lee County spokeswoman Joan LaGuardia said in an email to Lee County commissioners.
In the interim, Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz will serve as acting public safety director. Scott Tuttle, who is EMS operations manager, will serve as acting deputy public safety director.
Public safety officials last month announced it was grounding the Medstar program to seek national accreditation, and soon afterwards, county commissioners learned that improper billing of $3 million had taken place that violated federal regulations. That has prompted an internal investigation and debate about privatizing the air ambulance program.
Wilson had worked for the county for 27 years.
The Lee County Division of Public Safety is comprised of several programs, such as emergency medical services, emergency management, 9-1-1 emergency telephone, and telecommunications, which includes the countywide dispatch center. During fiscal year 2009-10, Public Safety had 367 full-time employees and a $45.3 million budget, according to the county's website.