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County manager expected to submit ‘exit strategy’

By Staff | Oct 20, 2012

Lee County Manager Karen Hawes is expected to outline her “exit strategy” on Monday for the commissioner which was set to call for her termination.

On Oct. 9, Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann announced that at the following Tuesday’s regular meeting, he was going to make a motion calling for the commissioners to terminate Hawes’ contact as county manager.

“So that she would have time to think about it, and other commissioners would have time to think about it,” he said Friday.

On Monday, the day before the meeting, Hawes approached Mann and explained that she might be able to craft an “exit strategy” that would enable her to resign instead, and that she would present those terms.

“Based on that commitment from her, I decided not to proceed with my motion,” Mann said.

The two are scheduled to meet at the start of the week.

“The ball has been in her court for the last week to come back to us with terms under which she would comfortably resign, and I think that’s what she claims to talk to me about on Monday,” he said.

Mann was ready to call for Hawes’ termination based on what he called “an accumulation of problems that rest on the desk of the county manager.”

He said it started with inadequate budget recommendations, including the continual depletion of the county’s cash reserves to balance the budget for five years. It was exacerbated by the handling of the MEDSTAR shutdown.

“Which, I believe, should never have occurred,” Mann said, adding that he heard the issue had been “festering for more than a year.”

In August, Lee County suspended its emergency helicopter service temporarily for what management claimed was a push to gain additional certification. He said the shutdown later was tied to improper billing.

“Three million dollars in trip billings for which we were ineligible to receive reimbursement,” Mann said. “We’re going to be out $3 million because of the improper management of the helicopter program.”

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation, and the Lee County Clerk of Court is doing a separate audit of the program. Officials reported Tuesday that the audit could done in a couple of weeks.

“Even before those were began, I was very unhappy about the abrupt shutdown (of MEDSTAR),” he said.

Mann cited the contact with VR Labs as another problem. He said it was improperly reviewed before being recommended for commission approval.

“Which now looks to have been a serious mistake,” Mann said.

As part of the county’s economic development stimulator program, it awarded a $5 million grant to VR Labs on the basis that it would receive the funding as it added a certain number of employees, increasing workers.

“The intent of the program is to create jobs,” he said.

After receiving $4.7 million, VR Labs has not fulfilled its duties, he added.

“They are not in compliance with any of the terms of the contact that they have with Lee County,” Mann said.

He noted that VR Labs now is in a legal battle with the general contractor hired for its remodeling. Both parties have filed lawsuits over the issue.

“They are dead in the water, there is no progress at all, and there are no explanations,” he said.

“It appears that a sloppy review by county management is the cause for a lot of the problems here,” Mann added.

However, Hawes’ job performance has not always been such.

“Her work has always been exemplary,” Mann said, calling Hawes an “honorable woman.”

“She has worked for the county for 28 years,” he said. “The job just got a little heavy for her.”

It is Mann’s hope to find a painless way out of the “dilemma.”

“We do need a change at top management, and I think we’ll achieve that soon,” he said.

Hawes did not return messages left Thursday and Friday for comment. According to staff, she was not expected back in the office until Monday.

In another management shift, Lee County Attorney Michael Hunt recently gave the commission his notice of resignation, effective in August.

He cited his intention to move back to North Carolina in the notice, Mann explained.

On Tuesday, the commissioners designated Chairman John Manning to get with Hunt to “see if we could shorten that time between now and August,” he said. The resignation came with the release of work performance reviews.

Mann noted that at least two commissioners were “fairly critical.”