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Hillsborough commission postpones decision on fates of three top officials

BY BILL VARIAN

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — One commissioner proposed firing two of Hillsborough County's top three appointed officials, but wanted separate votes on each.

Another said he could support suspending only one of the three, with pay, while he asks more questions about the others.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who initially proposed firing all three for creating a poisonous atmosphere at County Center through a series of back-biting episodes and poor decisions, stayed out of the conversation for the most part.

So after three hours of debate Wednesday, commissioners did nothing more than hire an outside attorney to help them as they wallow through the quagmire. It was a good day for the contract lawyer at least.

Richard McCrea Jr. of the Greenberg Traurig law firm pocketed $930 at $310 an hour, largely to sit in the audience and field the occasional question. Commissioners will meet with him Tuesday to discuss their options.

Hagan said it was obvious there were not four votes to fire County Administrator Pat Bean, County Attorney Renee Lee or internal performance auditor Jim Barnes. So there was no point in pushing for the clean slate approach he has advocated.

"During the meeting it was clear that there was not a consensus to take any action," Hagan said. "While I don't want to minimize the significance of the e-mail episode, I think board members are getting bogged down in the minutiae of that issue."

Indeed, the e-mail snooping issue dominated much of Wednesday's discussion. Barnes recently issued a report accusing employees of Bean and Lee of trolling through his e-mail shortly after he released another report late last year revealing that Bean gave herself and Lee secret 1 percent raises in 2007.

Barnes recently claimed that after his pay raise report, Lee threatened to get him fired. Commissioner Rose Ferlita has said that some time later Lee gave her a stack of information about Barnes, including e-mails.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner started the discussion by urging his colleagues to slow down until they get more information about the pay raises and e-mail snooping. The three appointees collectively are due a combined $720,000 if fired without cause. With the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigating the actions of Bean and Lee, Beckner said commissioners may yet get the justification they need to avoid severance.

"This is people's lives," Beckner said. "But also, there are people's tax dollars at stake."

Hagan said he came up with his triple play in reaction to more than e-mail snooping. There's a pair of stealth raises handed out by Bean, whom he says has been a weak leader; unprofessional reactions by Lee to Barnes' audits; and continued questions about the quality of Barnes' work, all of which Hagan said has left him sickened.

With that, Commissioner Mark Sharpe moved to fire both Lee and Bean with cause, but said he couldn't justify trying to fire Barnes, who uncovered the pay raises. But his first motion dealing with Lee failed to muster a second. Hagan said afterward he couldn't support firing them for cause, fearing it would expose the county to lawsuits because their contracts narrowly define justifiable reasons for firing them.

"I don't see how we can continue to operate like this for one more day," Sharpe said of the ongoing focus on pay raises and e-mails that he says has ground work at County Center to a halt.

Ferlita defended Lee for providing her records about Barnes, saying she was being helpful to the commissioner who has been openly critical of the auditor's work. Lee said the records mostly included transcripts from commission meetings.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham questioned that behavior, however, saying that when he has requested information from Lee on certain issues, she has shared her response with all the other board members — which didn't happen in this case.

He further asked Bean if she witnessed Lee threaten Barnes. Bean said she couldn't remember Lee's exact words.

"I was stunned by how intense the words were," Bean said.

Lee acknowledged being testy with Barnes following his raise report, but said that she never threatened to get him fired.

Higginbotham proposed suspending Lee, but his proposal drew a rebuke from Commissioner Kevin White. Any hope of action soon unraveled. White argued that Lee faces the shortest list of alleged transgressions. He questioned Higginbotham's motive for singling her out.

"I don't know what the undertone of that is," White said.

"Kevin, this is by no means racially motivated," Higginbotham said. Lee is the lone black employee in the group.

White went on to say he knows what it's like to be falsely accused, one of a couple of references he made to his civil trial last year in which a federal jury found he sexually discriminated against a former aide.

"Been there, done that, got the T-shirt," White said.

Jim Norman told his colleagues that the e-mail allegations against Bean and Lee are so far unproven and leveled by an auditor with a questionable track record. He urged them against rushing to judgment.

"There's a lot of good things going on in the county," Norman said. "And the administration's got a lot to do with it. And the county attorney does too."

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

Hillsborough commission postpones decision on fates of three top officials 03/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 11:05pm]
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