Apology, and a pledge to do better

By STEVE SPRATT, Special to the Times
Published August 30, 2007

I accept full responsibility for errors or missteps by me and members of my administration in connection with the Jim Smith property purchase. I will not address issues surrounding the actions of the county attorney or property appraiser. The following are my initial "after action" conclusions and planned corrective measures within my purview which I intend to discuss with the Board of County Commissioners.

Our public works crews should not have entered Jim Smith's property without proper authority. This is what prompted the initial claim. They were trying to do the right thing (clear drainage blockage) with the right intentions (prevent neighborhood flooding), but did it the wrong way.

I intend to put in place clear guidelines of what our legal authority is to access property, how we should enter areas to perform maintenance and make sure every employee concerned understands them.

While our staff followed all applicable state law and county procedures for property acquisition in this case, questions remain as to the quality of the analysis supporting the value determination.

I would welcome a group of independent experts in a form acceptable to the County Commission to review "best practices" in this subject matter, evaluate our land acquisition procedures and recommend improvements where necessary.

This transaction was initiated by a tort liability claim for property damages by Smith but was not evaluated thoroughly as such. Instead of performing due diligence on the claim for damages, the Public Works Department recommended purchase of this property for creek drainage maintenance access. This alternative approach bypassed the review that this claim should have received. I will recommend implementation of a practice that requires a review and report of claim resolution alternatives in future circumstances like this.

This transaction was expedited in the interest of trying to protect the public from legal liability exposure. I personally should have slowed things down to ensure that greater care was taken with the analysis supporting the decision and that all questions were thoroughly addressed. In the future, the administration should regard legal guidance as just that and exercise more independent judgment on matters such as this.

While I made it a point to alert every commissioner of the individual elected official involved in this transaction (Smith) and the rationale for my recommendations, they didn't know as much about the matter as they should have. While there are a myriad of topics I discuss with commissioners regularly, making it difficult to cover all subjects thoroughly, I should have provided more information to the board on this topic. I pledge that this situation will not repeat itself.

The controversy surrounding this acquisition has been deeply troubling to all of us who have labored hard to cultivate a high-quality government. It has regrettably damaged the image of our organization in the public eye. The grand jury did a commendable job of sorting through the many important facts of this issue and arriving at fair conclusions and constructive recommendations. I wish to apologize to the public, Board of County Commissioners and our employees for any contribution I made to this controversy. I hold the public trust as my highest professional responsibility and would never intentionally do anything to call that obligation into question or bring harm to the Pinellas County government. Be assured I will do everything in my power to restore any diminished trust in the public's county government.

Steve Spratt is the Pinellas County administrator.