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Spratt resigns, saying it's best

He's the second to lose his job over the Smith land deal.

By WILL VAN SANT, JONATHAN ABEL and THERESA BLACKWELL
Published September 12, 2007


Steve Spratt spent the last few days talking privately with his bosses on the Pinellas County Commission about his future.

The message most commissioners had for him was clear: Your support is weakening. This can't continue.

So at the end of a public workshop Tuesday, the county administrator offered his resignation and the commission voted unanimously to accept it.

Some commissioners were visibly emotional, their eyes wet with tears, as Spratt shook hands and hugged each one after the vote. But some also expressed hope they could now put behind them the fiasco surrounding Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land deal.

A week ago, fallout from a critical grand jury report on the deal led the commission to fire their county attorney of two decades, Susan Churuti. By comparison, Spratt was a newcomer, having joined the county as administrator at the end of 2001.

With Spratt's resignation effective Sept. 30, the end of the county's budget year, Pinellas will soon be without permanent leadership in two top posts.

"This resignation is submitted with no negativity or ill feeling as I am proud of the accomplishments we have achieved together," Spratt read from a prepared statement before the vote. "I sincerely believe this course of action is in the best interest of moving the county government forward."

The resignation eliminates the need for the formal reprimand the commission planned against Spratt. And although final terms of the separation won't be settled until the commission next meets on Tuesday, the 52-year-old Spratt will be eligible for a year of severance pay. He is paid $223,476 annually.

The current upheaval in Pinellas government stems from the County Commission's unanimous vote June 5 to buy vacant land on Brooker Creek from Smith. He was paid $225,000, nearly four times the value Smith's office assigned the lot for tax purposes.

The grand jury's report on the deal, issued Aug. 28, faulted all of the players involved for creating the "clear public perception" that Smith got favorable treatment. Spratt pushed his staff to give the Smith deal priority and urged them to complete the transaction as quickly as possible at a time when Smith was seeking money for a down payment on a home. The grand jury report faulted his administration for short-circuiting normal procedures and for a questionable appraisal of the Smith property.

The report also criticized Spratt for not telling the full commission before they voted that Smith initially threatened a lawsuit against the county for allegedly damaging his land while doing flood control work after the 2004 hurricanes.

Spratt apologized to the public and the commission for his missteps and maintained he moved quickly because Churuti convinced him the best way to settle Smith's claim was through a purchase. A little more than a week ago, Spratt narrowly missed being fired at the same commission meeting where Churuti was booted.

Two commissioners moved to fire Spratt, and several others sharply criticized his actions.

Commissioners who spoke to Spratt on Friday said he was weighing a resignation but wanted to think about it over the weekend and talk with his wife, Lora.

On Tuesday, several commissioners praised him for sacrificing himself for the good of Pinellas County.

"Ever since Steve has been here, he put the organization first and he did that in this instance," County Commissioner Calvin Harris said after the vote. "He said, 'If I'm the lightning rod, I'll just remove myself from the equation.'"

After Tuesday's meeting, Spratt said dealing with the controversy over the Smith deal was the toughest challenge of his life, and he did not know what was next for him.

"I don't have any particular path or other avenues at this point," he said. "I really will just have to get to that when I get clear of important county business."

Spratt came to Pinellas after 25 years with Miami-Dade County, the last four of those years as assistant county manager. He took over from acting administrator Gay Lancaster, who held the post for over a year after Fred Marquis stepped down. Marquis served as administrator for 22 years.

Spratt was brought in as a change agent. He overhauled department structures, focused resources on underserved unincorporated areas of Pinellas and promoted a more activist, higher profile role for county government. A keen fiscal manager, he pushed for efficiency. Though critics of bloated government condemned him for it, Spratt amassed an unprecedented reserve account that the county could tap in emergencies.

What he lacked, according to interviews with several commissioners, was political savvy.

His plans for bringing a restaurant to Fort De Soto and building ballfields in Brooker Creek Preserve led to public backlashes that Spratt seemed unable to navigate.

"This Smith thing was just the icing on the cake," County Commissioner Susan Latvala said after the vote. "He's a good man, a good administrator, but we were just stumbling too much."

A workshop will be scheduled before the end of the month so the commission can discuss how to replace both Spratt and Churuti.

During the meeting, County Commissioner Bob Stewart said he had the highest regard for Spratt. Stewart questioned whether it was right for him and his colleagues on the commission to remain in office while putting the ax to others.

"I'm not sure that's fair the way this works," Stewart said. "Why should everybody else pay a higher cost than we do?"

Stewart also zeroed in on Smith, who he said appears to be above the fray. Stewart said Smith will have to answer to the voters if he seeks re-election next year and perhaps to the governor, who could remove him from office.

Neither Smith nor a spokesperson for Gov. Charlie Crist returned phone calls Tuesday.

Fast facts

Key dates in the Smith deal

June 5: Pinellas County commissioners unanimously vote to buy Jim Smith's land for $225,000, nearly four times what Smith's office assessed it for taxes.

July 4: The St. Petersburg Times reports the sale.

Aug. 1: The grand jury convenes to determine if any laws were broken during the transaction between Smith and the county.

Aug. 28: Grand jury issues its report. It does not call for any indictments but is critical of Smith, County Attorney Susan Churuti, and the manner in which the transaction was handled by the county.

Sept. 4: Churuti is fired by commissioners.

Sept. 11: Steve Spratt offers his resignation, which is accepted by commissioners.