1. Opinion

Capping excessive severance packages

Published Feb. 25, 2012

The former Hillsborough County administrator who surreptitiously boosted her pay while cutting other government services didn't commit a crime, a Florida circuit court judge ruled last week. Now county taxpayers are on the hook to pay Pat Bean another $316,465 in severance and legal costs, just the latest outsized payout to a local government official who was fired but still cashed in. If there is an upside in the end of this two-year debacle, it is that at least Florida has a new state law to prevent it from happening again. Call it the "Pat Bean Rule."

In the eyes of the law, Bean may not have committed an illegal act. Padding her paycheck without regard to proper County Commission oversight was clearly an unethical, if not arrogant, abuse of Bean's authority. But the real crime may have been the incredible golden parachute the elected County Commission had agreed to in her contract.

In all, including money already paid to her and other perks, Bean's total compensation package walking out the door after her 2010 firing amounts to $455,000 from a job that paid $224,120 annually. And the Hillsborough County Commission is far from alone in Tampa Bay in forking over taxpayer money to high-profile employees who don't measure up.

Fired Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen collected more than $400,000 in pay and benefits. Bean's compatriot in the paycheck-padding scandal, then-Hillsborough County attorney Renee Lee, negotiated a $156,000 severance package. HART chief executive David Armijo walked away with a $90,000 severance package, as did Hernando County administrator David Hamilton. Even little Madeira Beach forked over $78,000 in pay and benefits for City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. after he asked to be fired.

In an ideal world, local elected officials would catch on that such excessive severance payouts in contracts aren't wise investments, particularly in these tough economic times. And the Hillsborough County Commission, in negotiating current Administrator Mike Merrill's contract in early 2011, did make it easier to fire him without paying severance. But it took Tallahassee to finally put some limits on these outsized severance checks, including perks such as health insurance and retirement accounts. Any new contract after July 1, 2011, can't promise more than 20 weeks (about five months) of severance pay. The law also makes it easier to dismiss an employee without severance who engages in misconduct defined as "conscious disregard for an employer's interest."

By these newer, stringent and reasonable standards, Bean would have found herself more easily removed from her job with at most about $100,000 in severance. And while taxpayers, regrettably, could still be stuck paying a bill, at least it won't be nearly so much.