TAMPA — Hillsborough commissioners voted 6-1 to fire suspended Administrator Pat Bean with cause Wednesday, abruptly ending her 33-year career and settling county government after a year of upheaval.
They then voted 5-2 to let county Attorney Renee Lee return Monday from the 90-day paid leave she had been serving with Bean amid claims of secret pay raises and e-mail snooping.
Allegations that Bean gave herself and top deputies unauthorized pay raises as other employees got pink slips had created an incurable disruption in county government, commissioners said. They also used the unauthorized 1 percent raise she gave herself in 2007, unearthed two years later, as justification to fire her without paying some $455,000 in severance.
In contrast, they said Lee played a more peripheral role and could be allowed to return without causing chaos while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concludes an investigation into their actions. Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Mark Sharpe disagreed, saying the investigation should be finished first.
Bean's firing brings an inglorious end to a county career in which she rose from a personnel chief to become the first female county administrator. In a final plea to spare her, Bean's attorney said a termination vote would make her Hillsborough's first administrator to be fired, though some of her predecessors have left under duress.
Commissioners were unswayed, saying Bean had passed up several opportunities in the last three months to leave on her own terms. They dismissed a last-minute, negotiated compromise that would have let her stay on as a consultant for the remaining 18 months of her contract. She offered to take a 15 percent pay cut but also would have salvaged her full pension — boosting her retirement kitty by $200,000.
"The time to consider what's good for Pat is over," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said.
Neither Bean nor Lee returned calls seeking comment.
Firing Bean with cause means she won't be able to collect her severance. She is, however, entitled to pocket $191,737 for unused sick and vacation time, plus a $391,042 lump-sum pension payment not tied to her contract.
Commissioners said that was ample payout at a time when people are losing their jobs with no safety net. To a person, they opposed letting Bean return.
"It would be just like another 18 months of paid vacation at the taxpayers' expense," Commissioner Kevin White said.
They then voted unanimously to name acting county Administrator Mike Merrill as Bean's interim replacement for an unspecified period.
"I see it as a battlefield promotion," said Sharpe, who expects to keep Merrill in the post long enough to oversee an overhaul of county government he has started.
By determining there was cause to fire Bean, commissioners argued that the pay raise she approved for herself triggered a clause in her contract that allows them to withhold severance as a result of her "commission of … any illegal act involving personal gain in conjunction with her employment." By law and the county's charter, commissioners set the administrator's salary.
Richard McCrea, the commissioners' lawyer, warned that Bean may be able to sue if the FDLE finds no wrongdoing.
"I have serious doubts that ultimately the county would be able to prevail in litigation," McCrea said.
He said the risk if Bean sues and wins is that commissioners would be required to pay her full severance and legal fees, which he estimated could reach $750,000 combined.
That was among the reasons Commissioner Jim Norman said he cast the lone dissenting vote. Firing Bean without cause and paying her full severance could prove to be the cheapest option, he said.
"I believe it's the most costly avenue this board can take," Norman said of the prevailing vote.
Bean, 64, started in government as a recruiting chief for the city of Tampa before moving to the county. She rose through the ranks to deputy county administrator in 1988, surviving the arrest of her former husband, who served a brief stint in prison for accepting bribes as a county commissioner.
In 2003 she was picked to be administrator, succeeding Dan Kleman.
Bean oversaw a period of rapid growth in property tax revenue and government programs, and the real estate collapse that pummeled county coffers. Commissioners then accused her of being too slow and uncreative in reshaping county government.
Then came the pay raise allegations and accusations she did a figurative Dumpster dive through the e-mails of the auditor who unearthed her pay hike.
The raises to already top-paid county managers in particular would turn once loyal rank-and-file county workers against her. Commissioners' inability to agree on a response in the months since they were revealed started landing them in the crosshairs of public scorn.
"The people of this city are tired of this," Ferlita said. "They're done with this. I'm done with this."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.