TAMPA — The chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission has asked the county's top three appointed officials to resign or face firing in what he describes as an effort to clean house.
Ken Hagan says if he doesn't get resignations from County Administrator Pat Bean, County Attorney Renee Lee and internal performance auditor Jim Barnes by Tuesday, he will ask the full commission to fire all three.
In what he called an "open letter to the community," Hagan wrote Tuesday that the county's top leadership has engaged in a series of poor decisions. And their actions have been compounded by "public and private disagreements, backbiting and infighting, and posturing," creating a "toxic and dysfunctional'' culture.
"In my view, each of them has been more focused on maintaining their own status rather than serving the public good," Hagan said. "It is my firm belief that these issues may only be effectively addressed by sweeping change in the staff leadership of Hillsborough County."
Hagan will formally offer his suggested course of action and rationale during an afternoon workshop today that had previously been scheduled to discuss a proposed transit tax referendum. He also suggests that the commission prepare to appoint interim chiefs while the county undertakes a national search for their replacements.
A woman who answered Bean's cell phone said she is not speaking with the press. Lee did not return a phone call seeking comment, and Barnes could not be reached.
The three have been engaged in a series of ongoing skirmishes. The latest involve allegations from Barnes, the auditor, that employees in Bean and Lee's offices have been snooping through his e-mail.
Barnes says the e-mail searches took place late last year, shortly after he issued a report showing that Bean had secretly given herself, Lee and several other high-ranking employees 1 percent pay raises in 2007. Bean and Lee took heat from commissioners and the public over the pay raises, and each pointed fingers at the other in trying to justifying the action.
All three have faced questions from commissioners and the public about the quality of their work. Bean, in particular, has been accused by some commissioners in recent months of lacking leadership, and she was already under scrutiny for steep raises she awarded her top deputies during a time of cutbacks.
Barnes, meanwhile, recently got a peer review that said his work does not meet accepted auditing standards. He already had been accused by commissioners of doing sloppy and inadequate work.
Against that backdrop, three other commissioners said Tuesday that they don't disagree with Hagan's proposal. But Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Kevin White questioned the quick timing.
Higginbotham and Commissioner Jim Norman are out of town and will miss today's meeting. Contacted in California, Higginbotham said any discussion on the future of the county's top leaders should get an airing by the full board, each of the three should be given time to explain themselves, and the public should have the chance to speak.
"I think all the parties involved here should have the time to prepare," he said.
White noted that no action can be taken during today's workshop, and with two board members absent, he questioned the point of holding a discussion.
"I'm a little bewildered about what (today's) meeting is going to accomplish," White said.
Hagan said the controversy is causing a major distraction that needs urgent attention.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe agreed. He generally supports Hagan's ultimatum regarding Bean and Lee. But he said he wants to think more about how to deal with Barnes.
"My concern is I don't believe you kill the messenger," he said.
The other three commissioners could not be reached.
Lee released a detailed response Tuesday to the e-mail controversy. Barnes' report said people in Lee and Bean's offices may have accessed e-mails about ongoing audits and e-mails about a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry into the pay raises.
Barnes argued that some of that information is confidential.
Bean has acknowledged requesting some e-mails but said she didn't look at them.
Lee said that records her office received were in response to requests from outside parties, and that she notified Barnes and commissioners about them.
Sharpe, who has been calling for Bean's ouster for about a year, said that he is no longer as interested in the tit-for-tat of questions and answers between the county's appointed leaders. He said he remains skeptical of Bean and Lee's responses to Barnes' report.
At a minimum, he said, Barnes asked some legitimate questions and has met with continued resistance and hostility.
Sharpe agreed with Hagan's assessment of the situation, noting that it he has not been able to work on the proposed transit tax referendum for more than a week due to the controversy.
"The county attorney's office and county administrator have not conducted themselves in a professional manner," Sharpe said. "It is an embarrassment."