Six of Hillsborough's seven county commissioners had their priorities straight Wednesday when they voted to fire County Administrator Pat Bean on such convincing terms. Bean's last-minute money grab may have made their decision easier. But the board's majority still showed courage to force a leadership change at County Center in an election year. The commissioners were right that issue was the board's confidence and public trust in the CEO — not whether Bean would milk the taxpayers even further by challenging her firing in court. Now that this cloud has been removed, Mike Merrill, the interim administrator, needs to reach out and be creative in ways Bean never was to rethink how the county will deliver services amid this recovering economy.
The commission fired Bean "with cause," meaning it found she committed misconduct in violation of her contract. The board fired her just days before Bean's 90-day period of paid leave was set to expire. Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee were placed on leave pending a state investigation into charges the two took unauthorized pay raises and snooped through the e-mails of then-County Auditor Jim Barnes. (The board agreed Wednesday to allow Lee to return to work Monday.) Because Bean was fired with cause, she is not entitled to the year's salary of severance pay, or $224,000, her contract provided.
Commissioners had ample reason to fire Bean and reject her golden parachute. Her flawed judgment and inability to lead damaged public confidence in county government. The board should have fired her months ago. But at least by firing her without severance Wednesday, the board sent the message — to the staff and the public — that her conduct came nowhere near the professionalism that should be expected from a chief executive. It is disappointing but hardly surprising that Commissioner Jim Norman missed the boat by arguing that Bean could cost the county even more if she chose to sue. Commissioners could have saved taxpayers a lot of money had they realized earlier that the issue with Bean was competence and integrity, not dollars and cents.
Merrill has already sketched out a framework for a leaner and more effective bureaucracy. With Bean out of the picture, he can build on that vision and work with other area governments on ways to combine forces and serve the public more efficiently. The county's tax revenue will not bounce back anytime soon. Merrill will need to reshape the county for the long haul, and that will require gathering input from the public and groups that have long counted on county support. Before Bean sits down with her lawyer to consider her next step, she should think about the legacy she wants to leave in a community that has been very good to her. Regardless of what she decides, the commission made the right call.