They waited two years too long and their concerns were self-serving. But Hillsborough County commissioners were right Wednesday to fire the county auditor and move to replace County Administrator Pat Bean. These two top officials had lost credibility and were a negative influence at County Center. But the commission could have spared taxpayers the drama and expense of removing them had they managed the two all along.
Auditor Jim Barnes never seemed to have a clue about his core responsibilities, and he was tone-deaf to the financial challenges the county faced and the professional conduct he owed his co-workers. The only redeeming quality to Barnes' work is that he produced so little. He damaged public faith in an office that many already saw as a tool for commissioners to wage political witch-hunts. His removal should inspire the county's charter review board to put a proposal on the November ballot to repeal the office. This is a function the county court clerk can provide — and more cheaply.
Bean was a poor administrator long before she got caught taking a secret pay raise and poking into Barnes' e-mails. She was a weak leader who never commanded the staff's respect and who had no vision for guiding the county through the recession. Interim administrator Mike Merrill has settled down the staff and begun to rethink what core services the county should provide. This is a discussion Bean and her board should have started three years ago. Yet commissioners stuck with Bean because most were too scared to rationalize her $450,000 severance package to the voting public.
Bean's lawyer said Wednesday she is ready to deal. Both sides need to move on, and the only way to make this episode even uglier is to haggle over money. Bean may be due a year's pay and benefits under her contract. But she also owed this county better professional judgment than she showed over several years. Bean should have the grace to walk away without further burdening a county that treated and paid her too well for too long.
Commissioners also need to learn two lessons. First, no more golden parachutes for senior executives. Taxpayers cannot afford them. Big severances only prevent the commission from keeping the administrator accountable. And secondly, the commission's refusal to conduct serious annual evaluations has left it little bargaining power to reduce Bean's severance. Commissioner Ken Hagan has said for months that his problem with Bean goes far beyond the pay raise. Yet he and Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham have declined to put their evaluations of senior staff in writing. They treat these six-figure staffers like they are private help. But county government is a public business funded by taxpayer dollars. Had the commission run it that way, Bean would have been out the door sooner at a more tolerable price.