Not just one player in Pinellas land deal

Published August 30, 2007

It's a mistake to blame this Pinellas County scandal on a single, easy scapegoat.

As the grand jury report made public Tuesday shows, the Jim Smith land deal smells bad four ways:

-The value of the land Smith, the county's elected property appraiser, sold to the county.

-The county staff's rushed, irregular handling of the $225,000 purchase.

-The county attorney's repeated efforts to move the deal. The grand jury said she played a "perplexing and misleading" role.

-The County Commission's approval of the deal without public discussion, when it obviously should have had "the highest scrutiny."

Few reasonable people could read this report and conclude that this was good government - or even that the transaction is defensible.

In fact, the grand jury says it's debatable whether the county can even use Smith's land for the purpose it first gave to justify the deal.

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Against all this, Smith and the county attorney, Susan Churuti, remain in full denial.

"Why," Smith asked after the report came out, "would I resign?" (His friends should tell him that there is an answer to that question.)

As for Churuti, she issued a statement saying that everything she did was within her proper role as county attorney. But the grand jury specifically rejected Churuti's argument that she was just trying to save the county time and trouble.

The county administrator, Steve Spratt, is trying a different tack.

He sent out a two-page letter Wednesday, apologizing "for any contribution I made to this controversy." Spratt said he should have slowed down the deal.

The dynamic is pretty clear. If Churuti is forced to walk the plank, Spratt intends to be watching from the deck.

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This leaves the seven members of the County Commission. In the end, this is their fault - and not in a generalized, "the buck stops here" sense. It is their fault personally and individually. They had it right in front of them, and they voted for it 7-0.

If they think Churuti deserves to go for this, will any of them resign too? Will any of them move for the board to reprimand or censure itself, to take any responsibility?

How can they do one thing to Churuti and another to Spratt? Churuti's offense, according to the grand jury, was that she didn't make her role perfectly clear.

But it wasn't Churuti who magically increased the percentage of Smith's land that was supposedly usable. It wasn't Churuti who set a price based upon "comparable" sales that included a gated residential community. It wasn't Churuti who sat there and fed it to the commission for approval.

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In Florida, we elect a property appraiser separately from the rest of the government for a good reason.

The elected appraiser is a check on the fearsome power of the government. The power to levy tax and the power to set property values are rightly kept in separate hands.

That is why this Smith matter is so important. Any deal that has the government putting $225,000 into the pocket of that "independent" appraiser deserves, to borrow the grand jury's words, "the highest scrutiny."

This one got the lowest.