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A Times Editorial

Three officials deserve a pat on the back

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002

Given the frequency and intensity of criticism that elected officials endure -- often on this page -- we are pleased to balance that with a few well-earned words of praise.

Three of Citrus County's constitutional officers reacted promptly, appropriately and in the best interest of their constituents recently. Their deft handling of each situation demonstrates a sincere willingness to do more than required to protect taxpayers' investments and privacy.

Property Appraiser Ron Schultz and Tax Collector Janice Warren announced that they are implementing new procedures to safeguard property owners from the type of scam that has been reported recently in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Some residents in those counties were shocked to learn that land speculator Don Connolly had bought submerged land, or in some cases small strips of common property that were not more than a few feet wide, and then tried to intimidate adjacent owners into buying the land from him. His asking price always was exorbitantly more than he had paid because he bought the properties at tax auctions.

Selling odd-shaped parcels on which the taxes are delinquent is not illegal, so no one could stop Connolly or others like him from making the purchases. That may change as property appraisers, tax collectors and some legislators seek a way to prevent others from taking advantage of this legal loophole.

But until that happens, Schultz and Warren have put into place some procedures that will help prevent landowners from being caught unawares. When someone applies at the Tax Collector's Office to put a property up for tax auction, Warren will notify Schultz's staff so that they can determine whether such a sale poses a threat to abutting landowners. If it does, the property appraiser will notify them by mail of the impending sale of the tax deed.

This is not a permanent solution, but it'll do until state law can be changed to require direct notification of each nearby property owner. The law also should be revised so that common property in a subdivision, which has no potential for being improved, is taken off the tax rolls and deeded automatically to the affected homeowners.

A few days later, Clerk of the Circuit Court Betty Stifler set aside months of work to respond to the worries of residents who are fearful that modernizing access to public records will invade their privacy.

The mandate to post public records on the Internet came from the state Legislature and requires court clerks throughout the state to be in compliance by Jan. 1, 2006. The records have always been available for the public to view; the difference is that now they will be accessible without making a trip to the courthouse. Anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection will be able to view them at the click of a mouse.

But many of those records include residents' Social Security and driver's license numbers, military records, court settlements and the like. Considering the increasing occurrence of identity theft and electronic fraud, it is understandable that some people object to having their Social Security numbers broadcast worldwide.

Lawmakers anticipated that reluctance, and the law allows anyone to request that his Social Security number be removed from the documents. However, one cannot just give his Social Security number to the clerk's office and ask that it be deleted from all records; he must research the records and specify each withdrawal in a request to the clerk.

Even though Strifler has been working on this project for several months and had done her best to notify the public that she planned to implement the online system on July 8, there was little public reaction until the Citrus Times published a front-page news story about it July 4. That resulted in a crowd descending upon the courthouse and expressing confusion and outrage about the directive.

Understanding that residents needed more time to research the records to find where their private information might be stored -- and that she still has plenty of time before the Legislature's deadline rolls around -- Strifler stayed the plan. It was an accommodating and sensible decision.

Elected officials should never expect praise for doing their jobs; the public expects no less of them. However, in these instances, a trio of constitutional officers went beyond what is required of them by shielding Citrus County residents, as best as they can for now, from those who might take advantage of weaknesses in state laws. That deserves to be acknowledged.

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