Hillsborough commissioners fixed one problem Tuesday but created another by suspending County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee. The two have become a major distraction since the scandal over e-mail and secret pay raises broke weeks ago, and removing them for up to 90 days should allow the storm clouds to break at County Center. Yet it would have been much cleaner for commissioners to finish the job and make a clean break with Bean and Lee. Keeping them on the payroll — and still in charge of the underlings who will fill in for the interim — only creates a larger leadership vacuum in the fourth-largest county in the fourth-largest state.
Commissioners did clarify the situation a bit. A clear majority of the commissioners no longer has confidence in the administrator. Board members also underscored that the problem is not merely whether Bean and Lee acted inappropriately in seeking the e-mails of county auditor Jim Barnes. They expressed concern for the larger issue that Commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe, to their credit, have been hammering home for weeks: The public's business is not getting done because the senior staff has a rotten relationship. The commission also showed a greater appreciation for the need to move quickly. And they seem to grasp that whether to fire the two and pay them severance is not a discussion to leave to the lawyers but a policy debate that must take into account public faith in county government.
Commissioner Rose Ferlita suggested a face-saving move that called on Bean to resign. It provided a framework for paying severance while allowing the 33-year county employee to leave on voluntary terms. Bean and Lee should read the writing on the wall and prepare a separation agreement. They could spare the county further turmoil and allow commissioners to get on with assembling a senior staff that has its full confidence.
Mike Merrill in the administrator's office and Don Odom in the County Attorney's Office are capable interim leaders who understand county government and have the board's ear. But it is untenable to place them in a holding status subordinate to Bean and Lee and expect them to provide innovative, fresh leadership in a three-month period. The county needs one boss, and it needs one recognized manager of the legal department. Having Merrill and Odom act as placeholders will only cause the staff to continue testing its loyalties.
Commissioners avoided a tough vote Tuesday, but they did neither residents nor county government many favors. Bean and Lee can clear the situation up by moving on. Their time is over, and they should not return to County Center. Then commissioners can take a clean swing at Barnes, a disappointment as auditor who also has to go.