Officials answer grand jury report

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2007

In an open letter Wednesday, County Administrator Steve Spratt apologized for any "errors or missteps" he or his staff committed in handling the county's land deal with Property Appraiser Jim Smith and vowed to restore the public's trust.

Suspended County Attorney Susan Churuti forwarded to county commissioners a less contrite letter, saying she was available by phone and in person to discuss the controversy. In the letter, Churuti defended herself and indicated she wants to keep her job.

The letters were sent the day after a grand jury released a report highly critical of top county officials involved in the county's June purchase of Smith's private land for nearly four times its assessed value.

Now, the seven members of the County Commission plan to meet and decide whether Spratt and Churuti keep their jobs. The meeting is expected to take place within days, but as of late Wednesday no date had been chosen.

Events at the meeting will do much to measure fallout from the questionable deal.

County Commissioner Karen Seel, who tried unsuccessfully last month to persuade colleagues that both Spratt and Churuti should be suspended, said her faith in the pair is shaken and she plans to grill them before the meeting.

"I think the lack of communication was inexcusable," said Seel, who, like other commissioners, accused Spratt and Churuti of withholding critical information about the transaction. "I'm going to ask how they are going to go about doing business differently."

There's a lot at stake for Spratt and Churuti, both 52 and career public servants. Spratt is paid $223,476 annually; Churuti $193,015.

Staff writers Theresa Blackwell and Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be contacted at 727 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.