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Poking holes in golden parachutes

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean's contract entitled her to a year of pay and other perks if fired for a reason short of committing a crime. The total payout to Hillsborough County taxpayers could reach $455,000.

A bill overwhelmingly approved by the Florida Legislature would significantly shrink the size of public employees' golden parachutes in the future. It's awaiting the governor's signature, though local government associations are strenuously seeking his veto.

The measure would impose a cap on severance of no more than 20 weeks of pay — or about five months. If the employee disputes a termination, the payout would shrink to no more than six weeks.

The bill also limits payouts for perks not yet earned, such as contributions to health insurance or retirement accounts. And it would set a baseline for justification to fire a public employee without severance: misconduct, as defined by state law, or a "willful or wanton disregard of an employer's interests."

News stories of Bean's termination last year, and the subsequent dispute over her severance, were part of a packet of abusive examples collected by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, the bill's lead Senate sponsor. Sadly, he said, it did not even make the highlight reel of worst cases he discussed with legislators.

"I wish I could say there were only a few examples," Gaetz said. "But it appears to me to be a chronic problem, with too many local officials thinking the public treasury is their private piggy bank."

If approved, the changes would apply to employment contracts that are entered, modified or extended after July 1. It would affect public employees for cities, counties, school districts and a host of special districts, from port authorities to libraries. The Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties vigorously fought the legislation. The League of Cities has sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott urging his veto.

The letter says the proposal violates the notion of home rule, that local governments are best suited to decide the terms for hiring new employees. It argues that severance serves as a protection for local government officials against getting fired over arbitrary political considerations.

"City officials often find themselves in unique circumstances whereby they can be released from their positions due to 'politics' or changes among elected officials following an election, not because of their management or administrative performance," said league executive director Michael Sittig in a letter Thursday to Gov. Rick Scott. "Severance provisions allow these officials to accept a position that carries the risk of removal without the devastating effect of unemployment through no fault of the official."

Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller said the legislation could harm larger counties, in particular in recruiting.

"When you're competing for talent from around the county, you want to be able to offer the best competitive deal to attract the best people," she said.

Gaetz said the home rule argument might hold up if excessive severance deals weren't so pervasive.

And state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, R-Inverness, noted that many government workers in politically charged posts get no protection from arbitrary dismissal, including the staffs of legislators. Severance is even less common in the private sector, he said.

And he takes a dim view of the competitive hiring argument.

"We have in our district 14 percent unemployment," Smith said. "You aren't going to tell me you can't find someone who is qualified."

The bill passed with bipartisan support, with no votes against it in the Senate and only two in the House.

In addition to limiting severance, the legislation also requires that bonus programs get tied to measurable achievement and are offered to all employees of a government agency. It also would prohibit agreements that grant employees who are about to be fired a payout for quitting and agreeing not to talk about terms of their dismissal — a practice sometimes used in Hills­borough County.

Gaetz's press clippings packet included examples of what he considers excessive or questionable compensation schemes, most notably former Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess.

It granted him a year's pay — $326,340 — and benefits when he stepped down in March at age 52. What's more, it provides taxpayer-funded medical and dental coverage to him and his family for the next 13 years.

Then there's Bean.

Hillsborough commissioners fired Bean in June after blasting her for months for what they characterized as poor decision-making. Her contract entitled her to a year of pay and benefits, valued at nearly a half-million dollars, unless she was fired for a reason that included committing a crime or an illegal act.

Commissioners denied her the full severance, giving her $191,000 for unused sick and vacation pay (The approved legislation doesn't affect payouts for benefits already earned, such as unused sick and vacation pay). They said a 1 percent pay raise she gave herself, County Attorney Renee Lee and others, without commission approval in 2007 was cause enough to deny the rest of her payout. They argued it violated state law and the county's charter, which specify that commissioners set the administrator's salary.

A law enforcement probe concluded that it could not be proved Bean committed a crime, partly because Lee gave her a legal opinion that justified their raises.

Bean is now seeking the rest of her severance. Lee remains on the job with a contract that also grants her a year of pay and benefits if fired for any reason short of conviction of a crime.

Hillsborough Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state senator, said he shares the concern that the new legislation could make it more difficult for local governments to compete for talent. The upside, he said, is that it should make it easier for the public to understand the value of contracts for top government employees.

"What it sounds like to me is that they expanded transparency so that the taxpayer and public and the board can more easily see what the payout really is," Crist said. "A lot of times it can be difficult to see what the compensation package really is."

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

Poking holes in golden parachutes 05/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 14, 2011 10:32pm]
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