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Almost $40,000 to leave quietly

Hillsborough County commissioners today will consider giving the departing internal performance auditor, Kathleen Mathews, three months' severance pay and benefits plus an additional $15,000 in cash to go without a fuss.

The value of the severance pay and benefits comes to $39,008.

The additional $15,000 would be in return for signing a separation agreement in which she would pledge not to sue the county. The county has been making growing use of such agreements recently.

Mathews confirmed last week that she would leave the county at the end of the year after receiving a blistering evaluation this summer over what commissioners deemed poor management skills

Commissioners voted to advertise the job while letting Mathews reapply if she made improvements.

Mathews, with a little more than three years on the job, chose not to reapply, saying it was clear commissioners wanted to replace her.

Under terms of her contract, Mathews is entitled to up to three months' severance and benefits if she is fired. She has not technically been fired in this case, even though the board made her reapply for her own job.

"I don't see the difference there," Mathews said.

County human resources director George Williams sent a letter to Mathews in early November notifying her of a Nov. 13 deadline to reapply for the job.

If she elected not to, the letter warned, "your employment will terminate" Dec. 29.

"It is a de facto termination, whether or not we want to call it that," County Attorney Renee Lee said.

As for the $15,000 separation payment, Lee said it would cost much more to fight any legal claim from Mathews, even if the county successfully defended it.

"I don't believe in throwing money at anybody," Lee said. "If she brings a claim, it will take a significant amount of money to defend it. This makes sure the county is defended going out the door."

The county has executed separation agreements with at least three former high-ranking employees since Lee became county attorney two years ago. In May 2005, two department directors on the hot seat, the heads of parks and garbage, received $81,840 and $125,900 respectively for going quietly.

Lee also gave one of the top lawyers in her office, who had drawn the scorn of a commissioner, $40,008 in return for his resignation and written pledge not to sue.

Two commissioners reached late Tuesday said they're inclined to approve the severance pay and separation agreement payment.

"The internal performance auditor's office has been a tremendous resource to county taxpayers," said Commissioner Brian Blair. "Whatever it takes to get it going in the right direction, I support."

Commission Chairman Jim Norman said an attorney for Mathews initially sought six months' severance pay, a request he couldn't accept.

So this marks an improvement, he said.

"It's time to move on," he said.

Mathews is the first person to hold the internal performance auditor post, which was created with the approval of voters.

She has been the subject of complaints from past and current members of her three-person staff, who claim Mathews treats them in abusive fashion and doesn't follow accepted auditing standards.

Mathews has said her failure has been at making hiring decisions.

She noted that both Lee and County Administrator Pat Bean, the two other county employees who report directly to commissioners, are entitled to greater severance packages if fired.

Commissioners awarded Bean's predecessor, Dan Kleman, up to a year of severance pay after he resigned under threat of being fired.

Meanwhile, Mathews said she also did not receive either merit or cost-of-living raises like other county employees this year.

She said she is not sure yet whether she intends to accept terms of the severance proposal.

"I'm consulting an attorney," she said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

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