TAMPA — Suspended Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean survived yet another effort to fire her Thursday after lawyers failed to agree on terms for a dignified exit.
But her strongest supporter among county commissioners made clear after the day's tortuous wrangling that if a deal isn't reached by the board's next regular meeting, he'll no longer be on her side.
"I'm the fifth vote in two weeks," said Commissioner Jim Norman. "It's over."
Commissioners could fire Bean immediately with five votes. A simple majority of four votes to fire her would have to be affirmed at two meetings.
Norman's declaration came after a series of twisted maneuvers, including a 4-3 vote to fire Bean that was later rescinded.
The jockeying revealed at least one thing: Five of seven commissioners are now ready to fire her. They just can't agree how.
"Clearly the board is struggling with the best manner to bring closure to this sad saga while at the same time protecting the interests of the taxpayers," Chairman Ken Hagan said afterward. "But rarely have I seen so many changes in the board's direction in one meeting."
Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee have been on paid leave since March while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates allegations against them. Bean is accused of giving herself and Lee 1 percent pay raises without approval from commissioners, who set their salaries under state law.
Both also are accused of snooping through e-mails of then-internal performance auditor Jim Barnes, who unearthed the raises but was fired two weeks ago for other reasons.
At that same meeting, Commissioner Rose Ferlita renewed an earlier request that Bean resign in return for receiving some of her severance in order to bring the dispute to a close. A lawyer hired by the county to handle the matter was asked to negotiate with Bean on terms.
According to Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Kevin Beckner, Bean has sought the full severance she would be due if fired without cause — a pay and benefits package worth about $450,000. They say she has also requested that she be retained in a temporary consulting role for at least two months and has fought a request that her severance be held in escrow until the FDLE finishes its work.
"I don't know that that would be acceptable to me, quite frankly," said Beckner on Thursday, early in the discussion. "Let's just terminate her."
The lawyer hired by the county, Richard McCrea, told commissioners he received an offer from Bean during the lunch hour Thursday that gets the two sides close. He predicted a deal may be possible by next week.
Commissioners weren't happy with the late development. What followed were three different votes to fire Bean, with commissioners changing sides on each.
First commissioners voted to fire Bean 4-3 with cause, with Ferlita, Sharpe, Hagan and Beckner voting yes. The vote came after McCrea told commissioners they may be able to legally justify firing Bean with cause for giving herself a pay raise.
That would allow commissioner to avoid paying Bean severance, though McCrea warned she may be able to win back a payout in court.
Then Ferlita asked for a do-over. She said afterward she wanted an assurance from McCrea that the vote won't require commissioners to also fire Lee. She said she felt she got that assurance.
So a second vote was held. This time, Beckner changed his mind to vote against it.
He said afterward that he felt Bean should get the message that she needs to lower her demands. He disagreed that a 4-3 vote would have made the point clearer.
"I think a strong message has been sent that we are ready to end this," he said.
"I'm speechless," Hagan said after that vote.
Hagan joined Commissioner Kevin White as the only two votes in favor of firing Bean without cause and simply paying her severance in the interest of moving on.
So it's back to bargaining.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.