BROOKSVILLE — Commissioner Dave Russell referred to the elephant in the room as Tuesday's Hernando County Commission meeting got under way.
In the minutes leading up to the call to order, the atmosphere was tense. Many of the audience members had come specifically to see what might happen next.
County Administrator David Hamilton knew what was coming and already had boxed up many of the personal belongings from his office.
Russell made one last run at saving Hamilton from an outright firing by suggesting a compromise on his severance package and a chance for him to remain on the job until the end of the year. But it didn't fly.
Instead, Commissioner Jeff Stabins made a motion to fire Hamilton, effective from the moment of the vote, and "to have him escorted out of the courthouse in the manner the administrative code calls for.''
Commissioner John Druzbick seconded the motion, but Chairman Jim Adkins balked at the escort.
"He's been a good employee for a period of time,'' Adkins said.
Stabins insisted there was a policy for how to handle such matters.
"Let's just get it done, get it done cleanly,'' he said. "We've been dillydallying on this for a week. It's time to be done with it, wish him well and godspeed.''
In a 3-2 vote, the commission ended Hamilton's tenure. And after a few handshakes and pats on the back, he left the commission chambers without comment. He declined to be interviewed afterward.
He walked out with Jerry Haines of the county's human resources office. The two went up the elevator to Hamilton's second-floor office, where Haines and community relations coordinator Brenda Frazier helped Hamilton pack his final boxes.
Hamilton turned in his keys and his identification badge, and Haines and Frazier helped carry the boxes to his car in the government center garage. Then he drove off.
The vote to terminate Hamilton's employment came after county commissioners heard from a lineup of residents who were as divided as the board in their opinions.
Resident Joe Lemieux said Hamilton didn't deserve the treatment he was receiving from the majority of the board.
"Mr. Stabins, you are the last person in the world who should be asking for someone to resign. You should be out of here before anyone else,'' he said. "You are a disgrace. To ask someone to be marched out of the building is the height of hypocrisy on your part.''
Lifelong Hernando resident Doris Wysong told commissioners she was disappointed and had hoped Hamilton would stay until his retirement.
"He has been a clear, fresh spring flushing out a cesspool of special interests and entitlement that has proliferated for years,'' Wysong said. "I salute you for bravely meeting the challenges and taking on the tasks that have been dragging on for years.''
Local business owner Gus Guadagnino said Hamilton's leadership style had cost him the trust of the people who worked for him, and he offered to put together a team of local business people, educators and leaders to help the commission put together a plan to move forward.
Commission meeting regular Janey Baldwin applauded the move to fire Hamilton, saying, "He has hurt a lot of people.''
The move caps several weeks of drama over Hamilton's future after Druzbick asked for his resignation two weeks ago. A day later, during the Oct. 25 commission meeting, Druzbick followed up with a motion to fire Hamilton, which was seconded by Stabins, a longtime critic.
Druzbick said at the time that he had lost faith in Hamilton over a variety of issues. The most recent was Hamilton's recommendation to move Susan Goebel from director of transportation services to director of environmental services and give her an $8,000 raise.
He said Hamilton had misled the board when he was asked why administrative services director Cheryl Marsden had not signed off on the switch. Hamilton called it an oversight. In reality, Marsden was opposed to the move.
On top of news that Hamilton had applied for a job as Sarasota County administrator, Druzbick said he had reached his breaking point and was ready for Hamilton to go.
But after Russell and Commissioner Wayne Dukes spoke in support of the administrator, Hamilton convinced the board to allow him to draw up a transition plan and stay on until the end of the year to work on ongoing projects and provide guidance for the newest members of his leadership team.
That all fell apart when Hamilton's attorney wrote a letter to the county attorney's office last week. Hamilton sought the full five months of severance and benefits that was spelled out in his contract if he were to be fired, which would cost the county nearly $90,000.
Stabins called for Hamilton to be fired immediately. Adkins sought to ask Hamilton to resign at a meeting he had set for Monday. But when Adkins got to Hamilton's office Monday morning, he found Hamilton had taken the day off and that many of his personal belongings, including his model train and his fish tank, had been removed.
Hamilton, 62, lasted longer in the job than either of his two predecessors, reaching three years and nearly eight months into his five-year contract. He previously had worked as a county administrator in Minnesota.
The commission appointed land services director Ron Pianta to serve as interim administrator until next week's board meeting. At that time, commissioners will more fully discuss their plan for picking an interim administrator and a replacement for Hamilton.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.