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Two at center of storm

Pinellas' appraiser is a gregarious pol, but the county attorney is known for caution.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 29, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Pinellas County just doesn't do controversy.

Courthouse bureaucrats stay put for decades. Elected officials don't shout at each other. County commissioners settle in - none has lost re-election since 1992. The county administrator has been in office five years, replacing one who served 22.

But the government with so many unanimous votes and so little acrimony now faces a grand jury. The County Commission's swift and silent vote to purchase Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private land has prompted an official investigation.

The seven commissioners voted unanimously June 5 to buy Smith's 1.5-acre East Lake property for $225,000. County Administrator Steve Spratt oversaw the buy.

The pair at the heart of the controversy are two county government veterans: Susan Churuti, county attorney for 20 years, and Smith, appraiser for 18 years. Last week came the revelation that Churuti quietly represented Smith's private interests in the land deal at the same time she was representing the county.

After two decades of public service, both are skilled in the subtle mechanics of courthouse process and politics. But in some ways the two are opposites.

* * *

Smith is a political natural, a gregarious man who handshakes his way through a room. Not that he has needed to hit the campaign trail much in his current job. First elected as property appraiser in 1988, Smith was re-elected without opposition in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

But some say he is also strong minded, a trait that apparently revealed itself to several county leaders as he lobbied them in March about the damage to his property by flood control work.

"I've known Jim since he was a legislator," said former Commissioner Sallie Parks. "He was a good man then and a good man now. He tends to be a little stubborn and very adamant about his views but ... he's always a man of high integrity."

County geographic services director Charles Norwood said that when he saw Smith at the property March 8, Smith was "yelling madder than the devil about what the county had done. He was really mad. I wasn't going to talk to him."

Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan and County Administrator Steve Spratt also said Smith was incredibly angry in their first discussions with him about the property.

"I'm not a silent sufferer," Smith, 67, said last week.

Smith said that although he and Churuti have worked at the courthouse for decades, they don't socialize together. When Smith became property appraiser, Churuti had recently been named county attorney.

He has said he'll run for re-election, despite the current controversy. Or, he allowed last week, "this may be just the thing to put me over the edge."

* * *

Some officials are such magnets for controversy, you wonder, "What will it be next time?"

But people who know County Attorney Susan Churuti say that's not her. She was hired in 1981 by the Pinellas County Attorney's Office and rose to the top job in 1987. She couldn't have survived two decades of advising politicians if she had a blind eye to ethics, they said. Her job is to spot problems coming and help commissioners avoid them.

Parks, the former commissioner, said Churuti "is a woman of high integrity and ethics and always is on the side of caution." Parks and several others with experience in local government said they don't believe Churuti, 52, would have acted improperly.

Some are surprised Churuti is in a situation where there can be even a perception of cronyism.

"I really was surprised that she would do anything for any kind of a personal anything," said former County Clerk Karleen DeBlaker.

The question now is whether the powers-that-be in the courthouse united too closely, and whether the land deal that won approval without comment from commissioners - but with assistance from the county attorney - amounted to a favor that Smith won because of his position in county government.

The grand jury meets Thursday.

Staff writers Will Van Sant and Paul Swider contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 28, 2007, 23:15:44]

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