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With 2 commissioners absent, Hillsborough auditor survives vote to oust him

TAMPA — Embattled internal performance auditor Jim Barnes survived another effort by Hillsborough County commissioners to fire him Wednesday.

The County Commission voted 3-2 to dismiss Barnes during his scheduled evaluation after findings in his latest report came under question, which has become a pattern.

But it takes five of the commission's seven board members to fire the auditor under the county's charter. Commissioner Al Higginbotham left the meeting early Wednesday feeling ill, and Jim Norman had a doctor's appointment, according to a statement read into the record after he left.

"In my opinion, I feel that Mr. Barnes has been hanging on by a thread for some time," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who sought the auditor's dismissal earlier this year. "His employment can be characterized as a comedy of errors."

Barnes survived with an evaluation score of 1.6 on a scale of three — ranking him between meeting expectations and not — though only three commissioners turned in written grades. Commissioners indicated they may revisit his job status when the full board is present.

His latest brush with unemployment comes nearly two weeks after Barnes' released his most recent work. It claims office supply giant Office Depot may have overbilled the county as much as $1 million since 2007.

Commissioner Kevin White requested the review of county billing from Office Depot after reading accounts of similar claims from local governments around the country. He was one of the two votes to spare Barnes, along with Kevin Beckner.

Office Depot has denied Barnes' findings, claiming it actually underbilled the county in that time and wasn't given a chance to respond to the report before it was issued. A separate analysis by Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank's office found no significant billing discrepancies.

Barnes claimed Office Depot officials dodged him and that the clerk's analysis was not as exhaustive as his own.

"I stand behind what I have found so far," he said afterward.

The clerk's director of audits, Dan Pohto, took exception to Barnes' portrayal of his work.

"I've got to apologize: I'm a little bit smoking here," Pohto said, adding that Barnes is courting a lawsuit against the county. He said Barnes' analysis relies on assumptions and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the contract involved.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita picked up on that theme, accusing Barnes of repeatedly producing work based on conjecture, taking too long to complete assignments and failing to give people a chance to respond.

"Gentlemen, it's all just smoke and mirrors," Ferlita said. "This is a mockery."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he has lost confidence that he can put faith in Barnes' work and made the motion to fire him, which was seconded by Ferlita. They were joined by Hagan.

Barnes has courted trouble from the moment he accepted the job three years ago, pressing for a pay raise shortly after getting hired and failing to produce much work. Subjects of audits he has completed have regularly accused Barnes of getting facts wrong and failing to let them address his conclusions.

A peer review earlier this year concluded the work of Barnes' office has not met accepted auditing standards.

Barnes last year did uncover secret 1 percent pay raises County Administrator Pat Bean gave herself and County Attorney Renee Lee in 2007 and accused both of snooping through his e-mail. Hagan sought to fire all three, though commissioners opted to place Bean and Lee on paid leave as law enforcement investigates.

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

With 2 commissioners absent, Hillsborough auditor survives vote to oust him 05/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 12:06am]
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