Rot in Pinellas goes deeper than Churuti

Published September 6, 2007

After hours of talking and hand-wringing Tuesday, Pinellas County commissioners finally got around to firing someone for the county's egregious behavior in a recent land deal: County Attorney Susan Churuti. Yet they did so reluctantly, and only after several officials, particularly County Commissioner Susan Latvala, were either dismissive of the grand jury's critical report on the purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land or blamed others for their own dismal failure to do their job.

Latvala defended Churuti, argued that she should keep her job, downplayed the grand jury's findings about Churuti's role and declared, "She has proven she did nothing inappropriate."

Did Latvala even read the grand jury report? Among the panel's criticisms of Churuti was that she did not thoroughly investigate Smith's claim that his land was damaged by workers cleaning out a creek, that she did not determine the value of Smith's legal claim compared to the value of his property, that her request for weekly updates on the Smith deal left county staff feeling pressured to hurry the purchase, and that her decision to have the commission chairman and Smith sign waiver of conflict letters "created the clear impression that she was representing Smith" in his private claim against the county.

County Administrator Steve Spratt survived Tuesday when a motion by Latvala to fire him got no support, but he was given a public reprimand and three months to make changes. While Spratt previously had offered what seemed sincere apologies for pushing the Smith land deal through the county bureaucracy too quickly, Tuesday he claimed that the county's purchase of Smith's flood-prone land for $225,000 - almost four times its assessed value - was beneficial because the county needed maintenance access to a creek on the property. The county did not have to buy Smith's land at an inflated price to obtain creek access; it could have sought an easement or simply asked Smith's permission to go on the property when necessary. Spratt's explanation comes across as stubborn determination to justify his unjustifiable behavior.

And when it comes to avoiding accountability, county commissioners proved themselves experts Tuesday. They pointed fingers all over the meeting room, though they were the ones who voted unanimously and with no public discussion to buy Smith's land. Commissioners should have closely scrutinized the purchase proposal. They should have provided the details in public. They should have stopped this deal that was moving like greased lightning through the approval process. They have no acceptable excuses, but they, like Property Appraiser Smith, apparently will escape responsibility for their failures, at least until they are up for re-election.

Commissioners did prove themselves adept in one respect: making speeches. Chairman Ronnie Duncan went on ad nauseam about the need to "rebuild the bridge of trust" with the public. Commissioner Bob Stewart, perhaps trying to play elder statesman, was all over the map in his lengthy comments. Commissioner Ken Welch, on the other hand, displayed leadership and a no-nonsense approach. He asked tough questions of Churuti that opened holes in her defense of her actions. He corrected Latvala's misstatements about the grand jury's opinion of Churuti's role. He acknowledged "that things have gone wrong" and apologized for his part in it, and he made the motion to fire Churuti when others seemed frozen like deer in headlights.

This much was clear from Tuesday's meeting: It will take more than the commission's poorly focused, anemic response to the grand jury report to fix all that is wrong in the Pinellas County Courthouse.

It's called "The Largesse of the Public Trough" and it's one of my favorites.