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Commissioners remove Stilwell ‘without cause’

By Staff | Apr 29, 2009

The Lee County Commission terminated Don Stilwell “without cause” Tuesday, bringing the sometimes controversial county manager’s nearly 16-year career to an end.
The board voted 3-2 to dismiss Stilwell with three months’ salary and full benefits as a severance package.
Stilwell has one week to decide if he will accept the offer, allowing him the opportunity to resign. If Stilwell rebuffs the offer, commissioners will be forced to fire him.
He retains full power as county manager for the next seven days.
Stilwell has come under fire recently following an FBI request — for an undisclosed reason — for specific e-mails from county employees.
Once the e-mails were posted on local Web sites, it was revealed that the county manager had received and sent inappropriate e-mails using county computers.
“I cannot defend that conduct in the court of public opinion,” Chairman Ray Judah said. “There are standards that must be upheld. There’s no question the county’s relationship with the county manager must be terminated.”
Judah opened Tuesday’s regular board meeting by asking the board to accept Stilwell’s resignation, which Stilwell did not tender.
Stilwell said he would resign if the commissioners asked, which sparked a lengthy debate as to the possible legal ramifications of parting ways with the county manager.
Commissioner Frank Mann wanted to know if firing Stilwell with cause would lead to litigation.
Lee County Attorney David Owen said the issue comes down to how serious the violation — receiving and sending sexually explicit e-mails — is determined to be by commissioners. If the board fired Stilwell for “just cause,” he would receive no severance package.
He warned commissioners that upper management should be held to a different standard than the common county employee.
“You would expect more from the contract employees than the average county employee,” Owen said.
Mann broached the topic of paying Stilwell a three-month severance package while allowing him a week to remain in office while he makes his decision.
Commissioners Bob Janes and Brian Bigelow did not agree with letting Stilwell remain in office.
Bigelow likened the severance package to a reward for poor judgement, while Janes thought the termination should not be stretched out.
“To have them linger a week is not how it’s usually done. I don’t like prolonging it,” Janes said.
Stilwell, without legal council or family members present in chambers Tuesday, admitted his mistake to commissioners, calling it stupid.
“I did it and I am sorry for it,” he told the board. “I don’t want this to be protracted … this has been a very difficult time for me and my family.”