TAMPA — This is what meetings of the Hillsborough County Commission have become: Its top administrator, a 33-year employee, distributing results of a lie-detector test to shore up her credibility.
The county attorney, with 25 years of legal experience, speaking with the aid of a lawyer she has hired to defend her reputation.
And the county auditor, whose recent peer review concluded his work does not meet accepted standards, standing defiant before the commission chairman who has requested the resignations of all three.
"I will not resign today. I will not resign tomorrow. I will not resign next week," said internal performance auditor Jim Barnes.
The county is battling budget cuts and contemplating asking voters to approve a new transit tax. But the months of infighting among its top three appointed officials that has consumed county government played out in an awkward melodrama Wednesday.
"This is what hurts the most," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said afterward. "The taxpayers, who expect us to solve problems, are watching the county's leaders hiring lawyers and parsing their words."
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan called for Wednesday's discussion to resolve what he described as months of back-biting between County Administrator Pat Bean, County Attorney Renee Lee and Barnes. Hagan says the behavior of the three has created a culture at County Center that is toxic and dysfunctional.
His solution: a trifecta of terminations. He has asked all three to resign and says if they don't he will seek to fire them.
The infighting came to a head last week when Barnes released a report claiming employees of Bean and Lee had been snooping in his e-mails, some of which are shielded from public disclosure. He says the snooping occurred after his report last year showed Bean secretly gave herself, Lee and other top employees 1 percent pay raises in 2007.
Hagan took pains Wednesday to say that his call for dismissals is a response to months of less-than-professional behavior from the three — including a lack of leadership on key issues, other secret raises by Bean and shoddy work by the auditor.
"It's about the larger, bigger picture perspective," he said.
Commissioners debated the merits of his proposal, with Jim Norman returning from a trip to defend Bean and Lee. He reminded commissioners that a group is seeking to ask voters in November to replace Bean's job with an elected county mayor.
Norman argued that commissioners will not be able to hire qualified replacements with that initiative looming. Furthermore, he said, there are questions about Barnes' e-mail report.
"There's just a possibility that we're wrong," Norman said.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner pointed out the possible cost of firing the three. They have contracts guaranteeing combined payouts of more than $720,000 if fired for something short of committing a crime.
Bean would get a year of pay, ongoing benefits and compensation for unused sick and vacation time, for a total of $448,847. Lee is due $232,212 under slightly less generous terms. Barnes would get $39,782, which covers three months of pay and some benefits.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the 1 percent pay raises, which Beckner said may provide a way to fire Lee and Bean without a payout.
Each of the officials pleaded their cases. Barnes started off by saying his latest report stands on its own. Lee summarized her response to the report, saying it told a story that was based on "assumptions, not facts." She said that testimony from the county's technology chief "destroys" any assertion that Barnes' e-mails were improperly accessed.
Any e-mails accessed by her office were in response to public records requests from people outside county government, she added. Her attorney, Chinwe Fossett, who works with high-profile lawyer Barry Cohen, said Lee has been unfairly lumped in with the other appointees without doing anything wrong.
Lee did not address comments made by Commissioner Rose Ferlita earlier in the meeting. News accounts have noted that Ferlita read e-mails from one of Barnes' employees during a January meeting in which she was dressing down the auditor.
Ferlita said Wednesday that Lee gave her the e-mails. And she said later that Lee volunteered them, perhaps while trying to be helpful.
Lee declined comment after the meeting.
Finally, Bean once again said she requested copies of Barnes' e-mails, but never looked at them.
She said she voluntarily submitted to a lie-detector test in which she was asked if she examined the compact disc containing Barnes' office e-mail and responded, "No." A polygraph report provided by Florida Factfinders and requested by her attorney found that Bean "showed no consistent or specific physiological responses indicative of deception to the relevant questions."
Commissioners took no definitive action Wednesday, agreeing only to hire an outside law firm to guide them because Lee is involved in the issue.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.