The furor Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean created by handing double-digit pay raises to senior staff members points to a larger problem: a chief executive who is weak and lacks creativity at a time when the county needs a strong leader with vision. There is no perfect time to force out an executive with 32 years of institutional history, especially when that would carry a severance cost of a quarter-million dollars. But it is time for county commissioners to replace Bean. Severance pay should be no excuse for keeping around an ineffective county administrator who has lost the confidence of commissioners and the public. The county needs a leader as dynamic as the times, and it cannot wait to make a change until Bean's contract ends in 2012.
Bean earned a reputation throughout her career as a hard-working, conscientious bureaucrat who never shrank from difficult assignments. She was a safe if uninspiring choice to succeed her then-boss, Dan Kleman, whom commissioners forced out in a power struggle in 2003. But Bean seems so shaped by Kleman's ouster that she has not found the backbone to stand up to her elected board. The result is weak professional guidance that fails to help elected commissioners reach sound decisions in tough times.
The raises Bean gave her senior staff last year were a serious — though only her latest — lapse in judgment. She cut a deal with commissioners to defuse the standoff, but that is a face-saving way for both sides to move beyond the distraction to confront the bigger picture: How to plug a $110 million revenue shortfall that could force 1,000 staffers from their jobs. It hardly inspires confidence that Bean was forced to do the right thing.
The county administrator has become an enabler for commissioners with bad ideas. Her administration went out of its way to legitimize Commissioner Jim Norman's attempt to spend $40 million in tax money on an amateur sports park. (The board ultimately killed that proposal.) Last year, after commissioners scaled back wetlands protections, Bean tried to sidetrack a vote to renew the county's environmental land-buying program. She predicted anti-tax sentiment would kill the measure; it passed in November with 80 percent of the vote.
As she offers cover for bad policy, Bean also misreads the political winds. Her staff failed to act before the Florida Legislature passed a bill this year that enables developers to avoid paying for road improvements to handle the additional traffic created by their projects. The law could saddle Hillsborough with enormous new congestion and leave taxpayers facing millions of dollars in road work. Even the developer-friendly commission was so alarmed it called for the governor to veto the bill.
Bean also awkwardly injected herself into the delicate discussions over the future of Cone Ranch. The commission appointed an advisory panel to examine the ranch after private investors approached the county to buy the county-owned water preserve. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who introduced the proposal, has gone to great lengths to assure environmental advocates that the goal is preservation — not to make the county money. But in an appearance before the panel this month, Bean gave a thinly veiled plug for panelists to support selling the property. In one fell swoop, she affirmed the fears of environmentalists and robbed Hagan of political cover.
Perhaps most disturbingly, there is Bean's lack of long-range vision. Two years into the real estate collapse, she still has no plan to remake county government. The budget proposal she released in June merely called for hundreds of job cuts. She never looked at raising taxes or increasing user fees for county programs. That has been left in recent weeks to department heads and clients of county services, who have offered reasonable ways to keep front-line services open.
Bean proposed no strategy for going forward, despite acknowledging that the county does not expect to rebound in a strong way for at least five years. She also has done virtually nothing to explore how the county can maximize operations with the city of Tampa. In this economy, governments need to make the most efficient use of staff, equipment and facilities. Instead of reaching out, Bean has supported divisive efforts by Norman and others that have soured the climate for city-county collaboration. And she has yet to satisfactorily explain years of mismanagement in the county's affordable housing department.
The board faces a dilemma. Removing Bean would cost a lot of money. And commissioners could look weak as they searched for a replacement going into the 2010 election cycle — with a proposal on the ballot to create a strong countywide mayor.
But there are larger interests at stake than the commissioners' comfort or Bean's retirement timetable. The next several years are critical. Local governments need to work together and re-examine how they raise and spend money as well as which services to maintain. Leaving the county on autopilot will only add to the challenges for the next administrator. Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita have clearly lost confidence in Bean. The commissioners should get through the budget talks this summer. Then they need to turn their attention to replacing the county administrator with someone better suited to meet today's challenges.