This week's Hillsborough County Commission meeting was one for the books. County Administrator Pat Bean handed out the results of a lie-detector test in an effort to save her job. The embattled county auditor, Jim Barnes, refused to resign. County Attorney Renee Lee showed up with her own attorney. The only thing missing from this ugly circus were the animals and a snow-cone machine. If this commission has any desire to get back to business and regain the public's confidence, it needs to fire all three and work quickly to restore order and morale at County Center.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan called the special meeting to discuss charges Barnes laid out in a report last week alleging that employees of Bean and Lee might have improperly obtained confidential e-mails from the auditor's office. While e-mails are public record in Florida, state law exempts records of ongoing audits. Barnes said Bean's office obtained up to 6,000 sensitive e-mails. Bean acknowledged to the Times' Bill Varian that she sought the e-mails after feeling "under siege" by Barnes, who reported that Bean secretly gave herself and Lee a pay raise. But Bean insists she thought twice and did not read the e-mails.
Bean cannot justify her actions. It is irrelevant whether she read the e-mails or not. She betrayed the public's trust by snooping into an independent agency under the county charter. The cheap political indulgence was a serious lapse in judgment for the chief executive officer of the fourth-largest county in the fourth-largest state. And for an administrator who cannot find the time to follow through on her basic responsibilities, Bean's foray was a disappointing display of her misplaced priorities. She is nowhere near up to the challenges the county faces.
Lee and Barnes have their own problems. Lee maintains she never requested or reviewed the e-mails Bean obtained. She insists any searches by her office were conducted in accordance with the county attorney's duty to process third-party public records requests. That question should be left to an independent investigation. Lee is right that Barnes has a pinched view of the county's obligations under the open-government laws. Still, the county needs stronger guidance and a greater sense of urgency from its county attorney. As for Barnes, his work product and output are poor. He should not be fired for blowing the whistle on the raises or the e-mails. He should be fired because he is not carrying his weight.
The relationship is broken when an employee tells the boss: Talk to my attorney. No company can operate like that. The county should pay these officials to go; they work at the commission's pleasure, after all. The $720,000 combined payout is excessive, but those contracts are already in place. The state Department of Law Enforcement needs to examine who pulled the e-mails, when and why, and provide an independent time line. If any of these officials handled the e-mails improperly, the county could always seek to recover any severance. But the task now is to move forward. The county is a $4 billion a year operation; it needs a solid leadership team, a healthy working relationship between the professional staff and the elected board and the confidence of Hillsborough's 1 million residents.