Skip the flim-flam, bring the grand jury

Published July 26, 2007

If this is not an overt conspiracy within the Pinellas County government, then it is a heck of a coincidence - so many parties all working toward the same bad act.

The county staff, the county attorney, the county property appraiser, the chairman of the County Commission and the other six commissioners all played a part.

They all acted to have the county government buy land that was personally owned by the property appraiser, Jim Smith, at nearly four times its appraised tax value.

The story keeps changing. New embarrassing details keep emerging - such as the fact that the county attorney represented both sides in the transaction, which we learned only Tuesday.

Some of the players knew about the deal earlier than they first said.

But the gist is that Smith - who sets the size of the county tax roll - pressed county officials into buying his personal land, and the county did.

The staff under County Administrator Steve Spratt agreed to buy Smith's land, supplied a piece of guesswork to outside appraisers to have a value set, and recommended it to the County Commission.

County Attorney Susan Churuti not only represented both sides of the transaction but received permission to do so from County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan.

Then the County Commission voted unanimously to buy Smith's land.

I am not saying that anyone broke any laws or ethical rules. But an act does not have to be criminal or unethical to be wretchedly bad government.

In fact, I bet if State Attorney Bernie McCabe and a grand jury investigate, they will not file any criminal charges. But in Florida, a grand jury also has the power to investigate the government and report to the public.

The County Commission met Tuesday and the members acted as though somebody else's dog - certainly not theirs - had done something unpleasant on the floor.

The commissioners did not say one word about Churuti. Nor about Spratt. Nor about Duncan. And especially not about their own vote.

Instead, they did three things.

First, they agreed to Spratt's plan to name a citizen committee (chosen, of course, by the county staff) to review whether "procedures" were violated. Woo hoo.

The second thing was to vote to ask the state attorney to investigate - after McCabe already said he was going to.

The third thing was to agree to consider hiring an independent counsel for themselves. Something tells me they won't pass the hat to pay for it.

"It is imperative," Commissioner Susan Latvala said, "that we get answers that we to date have not." She did not specify which answers she lacks. Maybe one of them is, "How did I vote for this?"

Smith should resign. He can't set the tax values for nearly 1-million people with any credibility.

The county attorney should retire at once or be retired.

The county administrator should take the fall for leading the commission into this and ask his bosses to deal with him accordingly.

The County Commission should apologize.

Then everybody should cooperate with the grand jury, and the grand jury should report to taxpayers.

If the commission or Spratt really needs some kind of "citizen committee" to guide them, the grand jury should do just fine.