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Two top Hillsborough administrators get promotions revoked

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners had no power to rescind the 10 percent raises County Administrator Pat Bean gave to her two recently-appointed assistants — but they did have a loophole.

They took advantage of it Thursday and revoked Bean's appointments altogether, which now leave two top deputy positions unfilled and the raises that came with them in limbo.

The move means Eric Johnson and Mike Merrill, appointed as assistant county administrators in November, get back their respective former titles of budget director and debt management director.

While it might seem like the raises would evaporate along with the promotions, that isn't necessarily the case, said county attorney Renee Lee. Ultimately, Bean has the final say in her employees' salaries.

What she's done with that say has riled one commissioner, Mark Sharpe, to publicly state that Bean should no longer be in charge during this difficult financial climate and others to call her decisions morale-crushing, bad management and sloppy.

Amid countywide layoffs and pay cuts, Bean gave raises ranging from 7 to 17 percent to her six top deputies, including one that totalled $20,000. She justified them with job consolidations and the elimination of positions, which she said saved the county $700,000.

She said Johnson and Merrill's appointments, to administrator titles in management services and utilities and commerce, brought on responsibilities that merited a 10 percent increase.

Commissioners argued that everyone is working extra and being told to do more with less.

At a Wednesday meeting, Commissioner Rose Ferlita caught Bean by surprise when she dug up a procedural error Bean made when asking the commission to approve the two appointments.

Bean did not provide the necessary information, like their resumes or their actual salaries. Wednesday, she said she thought she had.

But at Thursday's budget workshop, she admitted to the omission.

That mistake gave commissioners an opportunity to re-vote on the appointments and reject them. Bean argued that filling those two positions with new recruits would cost upwards of $200,000. But Ferlita noted Bean could re-approach the commission with the same two appointees — at lower salaries, of course.

Six commissioners voted to revoke the appointments, with Jim Norman dissenting. He argued that the problem was systemic and shouldn't single out two good employees. Ferlita countered that the decision wasn't personal.

After the meeting, Bean said she was very upset.

"I heard the board say several times that in this period, one should be looking for ways to downsize and save dollars. That's exactly what I did," she said.

She didn't know what would happen to the raises, or even if the newly demoted employees would take on the higher positions for less money.

"They've already said they couldn't believe they took them as it was," Bean said. Merrill and Johnson declined to comment. Johnson got $163,092 following the promotion. Merrill got $166,566.

Human resources director George Williams says it's against policy to allow employees to take on promotions but not get paid accordingly. Ferlita said she will research that.

"Dear God," Ferlita said, "how long have we talked about people who are suffering out there? What kind of a signal does this send out?"

Ferlita has said that if it were her business, she would fire Bean. But she hesitates to make that same decision with taxpayer money, since the administrator's contract calls for a year's salary in severance, $226,366, if she is terminated before the end of 2011.

Reporters awaited Bean before Thursday's meeting, seeking her response to signals that her job may be in danger.

"If I had done something illegal, I'd say absolutely I should be fired. … I'm going to do my job the way I always do my job," she said. "I don't know that anybody has said there is any real serious thing wrong here."

Of the commissioners, she said "they've been unhappy before. …

"I don't have time to look over my shoulder."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

CORRECTION: Eric Johnson and Mike Merrill were appointed assistant county administrators in November. Earlier versions of this story that appeared in print and online gave an incorrect title.

Two top Hillsborough administrators get promotions revoked 07/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 9:38am]
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