TAMPA — As Hillsborough County commissioners debate the fates of their top three appointees, one not-so-small, lurking matter is coloring the discussion: their more than $720,000 in combined severance payments if they are fired without cause.
County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee would be owed a year's pay and benefits. Due to her 33 years of service, Bean's buyout alone is worth nearly $450,000. Internal auditor Jim Barnes would be owed three months' pay.
The severance provisions aren't uncommon for local government leaders, given the tenuous nature of their jobs. Still, some consultants say Bean's and Lee's severance pay is on the generous side.
"It disgusts me," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who wants to fire Bean and Lee and was not on the board when their contracts were crafted. "$400,000 in the public sector is outrageous. I will be paying close attention to contracts in the future."
Some commissioners who have voiced reluctance to fire the three in the wake of controversies about pay raises and e-mail snooping have mentioned the severance packages as one reason to be cautious. The relative newcomers among them have questioned why Bean and Lee have such lucrative buyouts.
An activist who addressed the board before last week's debate urged commissioners to be more frugal with taxpayer dollars in the future.
"Please, for God's sake, never award such sweetheart contracts again," east county activist Marcella O'Steen said. "It's insane."
Commissioners have had this discussion before — repeatedly. And Bean has been in the thick of it in the past.
Bean's predecessor, Dan Kleman, had a similar golden parachute in his contract — up to a year's worth of pay and benefits — when commissioners moved to fire him in 2003. Through negotiations, he agreed to quit before a vote to fire him in return for getting his full severance anyway — worth about $250,000.
Commissioners offered a similar buyout to then-County Attorney Emmy Acton a short time later, though she had no protective clause in her contract.
The board took heat for those gestures. When it offered the administrator job to Bean, Kleman's former deputy, her initial contract came with just a six-month severance provision.
Less than a year later, Bean headed up contract negotiations with Lee when commissioners hired her away from Charlotte County in August 2004. Bean defended the terms, which she said were similar to what Lee had in Charlotte County and included a one-year buyout.
Three months later, during her first-year evaluation, commissioners extended Bean's contract and increased the severance terms. They discussed the contract length for some time, but barely mentioned the buyout clause.
Jim Norman, one of only two commissioners who remain on the board from that time, said it was only fair to treat Bean the same as her predecessor. Plus, he said, serving a group with seven elected members is a challenge. With elections every two years, new board members arrive and want their own team.
"This way, that person has a year with their new board to prove their abilities and their worth to the county instead of it being all political," Norman said. "With our style of government, you want a professional in there, not a political appointment."
The other commissioner around at that time was current Chairman Ken Hagan, who has proposed firing Bean, Lee and Barnes. Attempts to reach him Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.
Bean and Lee have been under scrutiny for a 1 percent pay raise the administrator awarded to herself and Lee without commission approval in 2007. Lee signed off on the pay-raise idea, which Barnes uncovered last year. Barnes, who has been under duress for his own job performance, now accuses Bean and Lee of snooping through his e-mail to dig up dirt on him.
Barnes' accusation sparked commissioners' debate about whether to fire the three.
Those who report directly to elected officials, particularly city or county managers and attorneys, tend to face the hot seat sooner rather than later. Kleman's nine years as administrator was twice as long as anyone else who had the job before him.
County administrators and attorneys find themselves trying to keep their elected bosses happy. And they're subject to politicians' whims, particularly after an election. The potential severance package at least makes them consider whether a change is truly needed.
"Most of the time you'll see executives dismissed with a change of the board," said Phillip Robertson, senior vice president of the Mercer Group Inc., an Atlanta firm that Hillsborough County has used for some of its management searches. "Obviously, county managers and attorneys are very attuned to that and they will almost always ask for some type of severance."
Some sort of guarantee can be a necessity to lure talent from out of state. Even advancing within a government means leaving relative job security for a post with much less certainty.
Yet Robertson and Colin Baenziger of West Palm Beach executive search firm Colin Baenziger & Associates said a six-month package is considered more the norm.
"To give someone much more than that, I think that's a mistake, frankly, unless you really want that person pretty badly," Baenziger said. "But that's just my opinion."
Severance packages for county leaders around the state vary widely though.
Both Pinellas County Administrator Robert LaSala and County Attorney James Bennett are guaranteed six months' pay and benefits if fired for reasons that don't include malfeasance, gross misfeasance, neglect of duty or committing a crime of moral turpitude.
Bean's and Lee's contracts offer even greater protections against firing them without severance.
Palm Beach County Administrator Robert Weisman's deal trumps Bean's. He's due payment for the life of his contract. "So, theoretically, if I was going to be fired for political reasons, I would be entitled to at least four years of pay," Weisman said. Practically speaking, "I've always presumed that if things went bad, there would be some sort of accommodation — there would be some negotiation."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.