Three rings, three stooges, and one big train wreck!

Photo credit: wolfsavard @Flickr.com

So a sexual harasser, an email hacker, and an attorney walk into a bar...........oh wait, that wasn't a bar that was County Center! Cue the circus music.

I have written about our local circus before but last week this circus train completely fell off its tracks. This train wreck, otherwise known as the Hillsborough County Commission, has let three of their top employees steal the spotlight of shame that usually shines on a few of them. In what appears to be a race to bring each other down, all three of these employees finished last in my opinion. And as usual it looks like taxpayers could be stuck paying a fortune for this latest scandal. It will cost over $700,000 to let these clowns go without cause. Does making Hillsborough government look even worse that it did the week before qualify as cause?

To review, embattled County Auditor, Jim Barnes released a report accusing embattled County Administrator Pat Bean of obtaining some emails some of which could have been linked to an FDLE investigation involving her regarding those controversial raises. While most emails are subject to public inspection, records having to do with current investigations could be confidential. Uh-oh. Bean admits getting the emails (how?) but said she didn't read them. Uh-huh. The auditor's report also targeted County Attorney, Renee Lee, whose office fulfills public records requests and who was also one of the subjects of those controversial raises. After the chaos that ensued Ringmaster Chairman Ken Hagan called for the resignations of the County Administrator, the County Attorney and the County Auditor and said if they didn't resign he would make a move to fire them. Election years are beautiful things, aren't they?

To give you some more background, Pat Bean has been on the hot seat with Commissioners for some time prior to this scandal but only Commissioner Mark Sharpe had the leadership to try and fire her before she took the whole county down in flames with her but he couldn't get the votes. He is probably too nice of a guy to say I told you so to his fellow Commissioners so let me do it for him. Commissioner Sharpe told you so!

You have probably heard much about Bean and Lee recently but what about that auditor, Jim Barnes? Our own Mitch Perry recently asked the question: Why is Hillsborough County Auditor Jim Barnes being asked to resign? Well, let's see: he has been under fire even longer than Bean and Commissioners have basically relieved him from many of his duties even before the blistering results of his peer review came in. Many of his duties were handed over to Pat Frank's office (can't we just have her run everything?) It sure seems like every time Commissioners get close to firing this guy he digs up some shit on somebody else. So far the deflections have worked and he is still employed but I am having a hard time buying the "he is just the messenger" sales pitch.

Barnes has his own deficiencies and nobody has been more critical of them than Commissioner Rose Ferlita. He admits in this article that this whole investigation was started when Ferlita referenced some emails that exposed someone in his office for using government email for doing personal business. It appears to me that in an effort to find out where Ferlita got the emails showing that his staff had violated county policy, he just stumbled upon the Bean thing along the way. Oh and Ferlita informed the large crowd during the meeting last week that she got the emails in question from .......drum roll please....... the County Attorney Renee Lee.

I probably shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth if the auditor's report results in getting a better County Administrator but considering Barnes own performance has been criticized, the motives surrounding this latest report seemed a little suspect. Some quick research tells us that Barnes' rocky career in Hillsborough started when he asked for his own almost $20,000 raise just months after being hired. According to this article by Bill Varian over at the St. Petersburg Times, he didn't ask nicely for that hefty raise but instead wrote a scathing memo angering the County Attorney and some Commissioners. He didn't get that particular raise and the meeting ended in an apology from him. This editorial from the Tampa Tribune called Auditor Shreds Credibility over that same meeting ended saying "there should be no second chances." Looks like his troubles with Lee and Commissioners started back then in 2007. Since then he has done fewer audits than before the office of the auditor was ever created and the audits he has completed were not up to professional standards either according to his peer review. In his defense, the review also cites issues about how the office is set up but Barnes does not seem to help his own case as he does not seem to be above the backbiting. Some of my fellow citizens disagree and support Barnes including our own George Niemann who calls him 'Columbo'.

The amount of time Columbo Barnes budgeted to prepare for that peer review in question? 400 hours! That is two and a half months if he spent 8 hours a day 5 days a week for 10 weeks!  This article from April of 2009 in the Times chronicles the troubles with the office and offers us this history on Barnes:

But he was also unemployed before he was hired, having been fired from his prior job at the Florida Department of Health in what he characterizes as a disagreement with his boss. He also spent seven years, from 1994 to 2001, out of auditing, working part of that time in car sales.

Barnes is paid over $100,000 a year and his office gets almost $400,000 a year. That is a lot of money to spend on somebody so many axes to grind. It looks like this latest attempt to bring down his enemies could be the end of a three year grudge match. To put this in perspective, even though Barnes did not get that additional $20,000 raise he sought after two months of employment, in his defense, it only took him 300 hours to uncover Bean's $2,100 raise to herself. See what I mean? This more recent editorial from The St. Petersburg Times calls the auditor a waste of $400,000 but his sloppy work and questionable motives should not take away from what Bean has admitted to but instead it only adds to the cluster that is Hillsborough County government.

So now that the train has crashed and burned and all that is left are the charred remains, I think it is important to remember that true leadership would have seen this coming a mile away and done something to avoid it before the explosion. All the signs were there. Commissioner Sharpe saw it and tried to replace Bean but to no avail. Commissioner Ferlita saw it with Barnes but somehow he too was left in his post (although Ms. Frank's office is now paying that price). At this point, I think firing these three is more like emergency triage than leadership. Somebody please stop the bleeding.

Stay tuned for my next post where I will make predictions about who stays and who goes and even throw in a little advice to Commissioners on how they might know when it is time!

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