Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting looked more like an amnesia conference than an example of functional government. Despite some commissioners' best efforts to untangle a burgeoning e-mail scandal, county staffers could not explain why they pulled e-mails of commissioners and others that County Auditor Jim Barnes said might have been privileged under state law. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement needs to make its investigation a priority for the sake of returning order to County Center.
The question is simple: Did County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee or underlings operating on their behalf seek privileged records in an attempt to dig dirt on any bureaucratic enemies? Barnes' report prompted Commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe to call for firing both employees. It led the board to hire an outside lawyer Wednesday now that the commission cannot seek advice from its own attorney. And it made for the sort of comic opera that naturally comes when the interests of the people running an organization run contrary to the organization itself.
Bean said she could not recall whether Lee threatened Barnes' job in a meeting but did recall being "stunned" at her language. A county staffer said she could not remember why she pulled commissioners' e-mails. She also said that requests for e-mails are logged. Except when they aren't. Lee's personal lawyer promised to contact the county's new outside lawyer should she want to interview a county employee. Commissioner Al Higginbotham charged Lee misled him, while Commissioner Kevin White hinted the attack against Lee was racially charged. The only thing missing was Col. Mustard in the Conservatory with the candlestick.
Bean and Lee need to go, for their failure as leaders on a much larger front. But the two, while the central players in this sad comedy, are not the only members of the dysfunctional cast. Commissioners may decry the toxic environment at County Center — but they helped create it by politicizing the staff. They need to clean up this mess and move on. But they also need to learn from it.