The meter will be running today when Hillsborough County commissioners meet with their outside counsel to weigh the costs of firing the county's three top officials. To keep from running up the bill, commissioners need to show up clear-eyed about why County Administrator Pat Bean, County Attorney Renee Lee and county auditor Jim Barnes have to go. The commission also needs to change the county charter and its policy on severance so that future commissioners can hold executives accountable without punishing the taxpayers.
Not about the e-mails
Commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe have called for firing Bean and Lee. They made the move after the auditor reported the offices of the county administrator and county attorney may have obtained confidential e-mails of commissioners and county staff. While e-mails are public record in Florida, the state Department of Law Enforcement is investigating whether anyone accessed records that are exempt under state law, such as ongoing audits or criminal investigations.
Bean has acknowledged she sought the e-mails out of frustration that Barnes' office was after her. She did it after Barnes reported that she and Lee had taken a secret pay raise in 2007. The questions are serious, but they pale compared to the broader lack of leadership by Bean and Lee. And Barnes needs to go not because he blew the whistle, but because he does a poor job and has no clue how to make his agency relevant or efficient.
No public faith
County government cannot function when commissioners and the public lose confidence with those in charge. The poisonous culture at County Center is dividing the employees, hurting morale and complicating the county's efforts to conduct the public's business. Having commissioners speak to the county attorney through her private lawyer was bad enough. Now the county administrator has a lawyer, and so does the commission. It is like running county government in divorce court.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner is right that the $720,000 cost in combined severance is a high price to remove all three. But that is a blip in the budget of a $4 billion-a-year operation, and the price of doing business to bring in capable leaders.
The commission should put a referendum on the ballot eliminating the auditor's post. The commission can farm the job out to the county clerk and contract auditors. They would be independent and have no incentive to score political points by tearing down the only two officials who answer directly to commissioners.
The board cannot undo the existing severance packages, but it can close the vault on future employment contracts. There is a need to protect the professional staff from the politics of elected board members. But this is not Wall Street. Bean's severance, for example, entitles her to a year's salary (roughly $226,000), plus benefits. And the threshold for firing her without pay is high — she must commit a felony, take a bribe or be found morally unfit. Contracts for the county's new senior executives should include a modest buyout, and language that holds these professionals to ethical standards commensurate with their authority.
Firing the county's top leadership should not be easy. But the status quo is untenable.