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Hillsborough commissioners will negotiate County Administrator Pat Bean's exit

TAMPA — Within an hour's time, Hillsborough County commissioners dispatched their top auditor and made arrangements for the departure of their embattled administrator Wednesday.

Internal Performance Auditor Jim Barnes got the same security-guard escort out of County Center that his lone employee experienced last week after commissioners voted unanimously to fire him.

Commissioners then voted 7-0 to give County Administrator Pat Bean two weeks to agree to terms of a graceful exit or face the threat of being fired. Her attorney indicated Bean is ready to reach a resolution.

Getting Bean to quit likely will involve commissioners granting her much if not all of a year's pay, unused leave and benefits — worth nearly $450,000 — that she is due as severance if fired without cause.

Board Chairman Ken Hagan described Barnes' three-year tenure with the county as a "sad saga" of mistakes and political blunders that have finally necessitated his removal from the job.

By contrast, commissioners said Bean merited different treatment in light of more than 30 years of service to the county, marred mainly by recent allegations of secret pay raises and e-mail snooping.

"This is long overdue and needs to be addressed," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said, calling on her colleagues to "finalize and stabilize."

Commissioners gave Barnes one last chance to defend his most recent financial analysis that concluded Office Depot overbilled the county for supplies in 2007. But they had already signaled in recent interviews that they were poised to remove him.

As with much of his past work, this review came under fire from its subject. Office Depot said Barnes' conclusions were based on misunderstandings of the purchasing contract.

What was unusual was that Barnes' assistant, Billy Poulos, who did much of the legwork on the analysis, also said his boss had overstated the extent of the overbilling. Poulos was fired and removed by security officers last week after he attempted to make his case to commissioners, though Barnes said it was for a pattern of unprofessional conduct.

Barnes has been under scrutiny from almost the moment he was hired, immediately seeking pay raises for himself and his staff before they had completed any work. Subjects of his audits regularly complained of factual errors and conclusions reached and leaked before they could respond.

A recent peer review found Barnes' work didn't comply with accepted auditing standards.

"I can only imagine if Mr. Barnes remained what would be the next story in this sad saga," Hagan said. "This, in my view, has been a microcosm of the overall toxicity in the staff leadership here at County Center."

Barnes, 62, did not return a call seeking comment after the meeting. He is due three months' pay and partial benefits as severance, or just less than $40,000.

Two of Barnes' reports would end up playing a role in Bean's undoing. Last year, after the St. Petersburg Times reported hefty pay raises Bean quietly doled out to her six top deputies as other employees faced layoffs, commissioners asked Barnes to look at executive compensation.

He turned up proof that Bean had given herself, County Attorney Renee Lee and several other top officials 1 percent pay raises in 2007 without telling commissioners, who are supposed to set Bean and Lee's salaries. Barnes then accused Bean and Lee of snooping through his e-mail.

Commissioners placed Bean and Lee, who legally blessed the 1 percent pay raise, on 90 days of paid leave in March while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates. Bean had already been facing criticism from some commissioners for a lack of urgency and creativity in dealing with falling tax revenues.

In recent days they have praised acting administrator Mike Merrill for aggressively seeking to make changes while being a calming force after months of upheaval at County Center.

Ferlita had previously asked Bean if she'd be willing to quit rather than face possible firing, and she declined. But Ferlita said she has heard from Bean in recent days about her willingness to reconsider.

Bean's lawyer, Ken Tinkler, told commissioners Wednesday that she is ready to talk.

"My client has reached a point in her deliberations on this matter that she would like for us to have the opportunity to sit down ... and see if an agreement can be reached to resolve her situation," Tinkler said.

He declined to talk with reporters afterward and Bean did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Hagan will work with Bean, her lawyer and an outside lawyer for the county to see if they can come to terms within two weeks. Ferlita said Bean referenced the deal her predecessor got seven years ago, which was up to a year's pay unless he landed another job before the year was up.

Ferlita and other commissioners said they would not agree to retain Bean at County Center in a transitional role. Some commissioners also said they would like to withhold severance payments until after the FDLE concludes its work.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, Bean's harshest critic on the board who has sought her termination previously, said he can live with this approach.

"If there was one of us in charge, I would have dealt with it today. But there is not," he said afterward.

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

Hillsborough commissioners will negotiate County Administrator Pat Bean's exit 05/19/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 11:08pm]
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