Hillsborough commissioners restored a sense of order to local government Thursday by forcing County Attorney Renee Lee to resign. Her ouster, together with last year's firing of County Administrator Pat Bean, ends a political drama that has cost taxpayers dearly and distracted commissioners from the more important job of navigating the county through the sluggish economic recovery. Now the fourth-largest county in the fourth-largest state can get back to serious business.
Lee and Bean, who worked directly for commissioners, came under fire for taking pay raises without the board's knowledge. They looked worse after state investigators found they took part in a fishing expedition for internal e-mails that were part of a criminal probe into whether the raises were legal. The board fired Bean last year for a series of management failures. Lee came under renewed criticism last month after disclosures she met with former Commissioner Kevin White, whom the county is suing over legal fees related to his sexual harassment case. In a recent deposition, White said Lee spoke to him about the case, which raised questions about whether Lee compromised the county's position.
In a meeting Thursday with commissioners, Lee unconvincingly claimed she did not violate ethics rules or damage the county's case. She said she met with White as a courtesy to a former boss, and that while she regretted the move, she blamed a "media frenzy" for putting her job in jeopardy. Lee and her attorney correctly pointed out that White's checkered past gave him little credibility. But Lee never took the opportunity to clear the air. She had plenty of chances to rebut White's characterizations of when and where they talked and what was said. The board had no stomach to engage in a cross-examination Thursday. Even Lee acknowledged at the outset that relationships run their course. She asked only that the board resolve her employment status in a quick and respectful fashion.
Despite all the contention, Lee handled herself Thursday with dignity. She recognized she had lost the board's confidence and — unlike Bean — did not hang on for an outrageous settlement. Under a deal arranged on the spot, Lee agreed to leave immediately for half her severance and unpaid benefits. Board chairman Al Higginbotham did a good job of bringing a quick resolution to this reasonable settlement. The only low point of the day was when Commissioner Victor Crist pulled a parliamentary trick to keep his colleague Mark Sharpe from arguing for a lower payout.
The civil terms under which Lee departed should help the interim county attorney, Don Odom, bring about a return to business as usual. The county faces many challenges that raise complex legal questions, from how to reform hiring practices to enforcing new development laws and establishing procedures to consolidate public services. On that note, it was worrisome that Commissioner Ken Hagan, in his motion to remove Lee, called for a statewide search for a new attorney. There is no reason for commissioners to limit the possibilities. The departing county attorney lost the public's trust, and the next one should arrive uncompromised by a pinched search or hidden agenda.