A month into his three-month stint as interim administrator, Mike Merrill has brought a sense of order and direction to Hillsborough County government. The relative calm and competence confirms that commissioners needed to remove Pat Bean, although they should not have sent her home with pay while they look for ways to wiggle out of paying her severance. It is clearer than ever that the county actually can be run with professionalism and that Bean should not return.
Merrill was a good choice after commissioners finally acknowledged Bean needed to be forced out — at least temporarily — pending a criminal investigation into whether her secret pay raise and e-mail snooping broke state law. Merrill is competent and well-liked. Unlike Bean, he is not obsessed with looking over his shoulder. In his first weeks, Merrill has focused the staff on balancing the budget. He moved a transportation plan that Bean resisted. Morale is higher, and people who partner with county government say the staff is more responsive.
Bean was a diminished leader who should have been fired long before she got caught sneaking around and wasting her time going after her enemies. That is why the past few weeks have been so refreshing. Merrill has not changed the culture entirely. But there is growing realization that the dysfunction under Bean need not be considered endemic to county government. The staff is conducting the public's business without all the drama. It will take time to rebuild public confidence in the county. But Merrill has put this big bureaucracy on course.
The culture at County Center has changed so quickly that it is unimaginable that anyone would want Bean reinstalled at the helm. The commission should pay her severance on the face-saving terms Commissioner Rose Ferlita proposed in March. That would spare the county a costly legal battle and remove the cloud of concern that Bean would return. Commissioners also need to find a permanent replacement for County Attorney Renee Lee, who was also placed on paid leave in the pay raise and e-mail scandal. These officials have lost their credibility.
Allowing the situation to fester risks another run of the sort of circus the public saw last week. County Auditor Jim Barnes — who is fighting for his own job — fired his deputy in what looks like another case of bureaucratic infighting. Barnes needs to go, too. He is his own firing squad who has managed to reduce his office to an army of one. With a clean sweep, the county can start looking for a new leadership team. Merrill may not be what Hillsborough needs in the next permanent administrator, but he certainly is better than bringing back the last one. The gains he has made in a short time should not be squandered.