TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners put two of their top appointees on paid leave Tuesday after narrowly voting down firing County Administrator Pat Bean.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to place Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee on leave for up to 90 days as they weigh allegations of questionable pay raises and e-mail snooping.
The vote followed a series of proposals and counterproposals, including Commissioner Rose Ferlita's offer to let Bean quit and still receive the same year of pay and benefits she would get if fired. After conferring with her attorney, Bean declined, saying she needed more time to make a decision.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said the approach the board ultimately took, at his suggestion, does two things: It instantly removes two employees who have caused a great distraction for county government and it allows time for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conclude an investigation into the e-mail and pay raise issues.
Lee's attorney said she has been told by FDLE representatives that they hope to finish at least part of their investigation by April. Higginbotham said taking a step back will allow the "dustbowl" at County Center to settle so commissioners can make an informed decision on how to proceed.
"I think the public has a right to understand the complete and unvarnished truth," said Higginbotham.
Commissioners Mark Sharpe, Kevin White and Ferlita voted against the suspension.
The board voted unanimously to name Mike Merrill, one of Bean's six top assistants, to serve as interim administrator. Deputy County Attorney Don Odom will fill in for Lee.
It was clear from the debate Tuesday that commissioners wanted to leave the meeting having done something. They have been dealing for weeks with allegations by internal performance auditor Jim Barnes that people on Bean and Lee's staffs snooped through his e-mail.
Barnes said the alleged snooping began shortly after he issued another report last year that showed Bean gave herself, Lee and others 1 percent pay raises back in 2007 without commission approval. The auditor has been on the hot seat himself, and earlier this month Commission Chairman Ken Hagan called for all three of the board's appointees to quit or be fired.
Hagan renewed that call Tuesday, saying his fellow board members have gotten lost in the weeds in dealing with the controversy. He said all three are guilty of ongoing back-biting and bad judgment that merit their removal regardless of what the FDLE concludes.
In fact, he said, he suspects that Bean and Lee broke no laws.
"There's confusion, I think, between legal wrongdoing and errors in judgment, ongoing infighting, posturing and counterproductive actions that have muddied the waters significantly," Hagan said. "I've heard about the need to be fair to one or more of these individuals, but what I really haven't heard a lot about is being fair to our community and to our residents."
Sharpe seconded those sentiments, elaborating on them before initially floating a proposal to fire Bean and Lee.
That suggestion came after attorney Richard McCrea Jr. told commissioners they can fire any of the three if they so choose. But under the circumstances as he knows them, they would likely have to pay the three severance of about $720,000, with well more than half of that going to Bean.
Under each of their contracts, McCrea said commissioners would have to find Bean, Lee and Barnes committed a crime in order to fire them and deny them severance.
But McCrea said nothing prevents commissioners from firing the three and paying the severance. And as unpalatable as Sharpe said that was, he said it was the necessary price to get the county focused on the public's business again.
"We can't repair it," he said.
With it looking like Sharpe's motion would not get a second, Ferlita stepped in. She said she is not ready to support firing Lee, and said she appreciated Bean's 33 years of service to the county.
Respecting that, she asked Bean to consider quitting in return for receiving a full severance package. Commissioners took the same approach with her predecessor. Short of that, Ferlita said she would vote to fire Bean.
Bean asked to confer with her attorney, and was granted 15 minutes to huddle. She then said she could not make that decision at this time.
"I still believe I have a lot to offer this county," Bean said. "I'm not prepared today to do that."
Sharpe agreed to tailor his proposal to fire just Bean. But only Ferlita and Hagan joined him. That left Higginbotham's suggested suspension of both Bean and Lee on the table. Their suspensions with pay will take place immediately.
Bean and Lee left the commissioners' meeting room without fielding questions.
The vote leaves a large question over what happens if the FDLE issues a report that finds neither Bean nor Lee committed a crime. Higginbotham, for one, said he won't support firing either one if that happens.
"This just takes this off the hot burner," he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.