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Column

Elected bosses let Spratt go to his end

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published September 13, 2007


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In the beginning, there was Fred Marquis.

Marquis ran Pinellas County from 1979 to 2000 as the county administrator. The Pinellas Trail is named for him.

When I say he "ran" Pinellas County, I mean it. Although he was the hired help in an official sense, in reality he was a power in his own right.

He ran things quietly but firmly, behind closed doors. Almost everything got settled that way. You didn't see anything blow up or get derailed.

It wasn't especially open or democratic but it was efficient. Everybody talked about how smoothly Pinellas ran, especially compared to raucous Hillsborough.

So the County Commission deferred to the administrator, which over the years grew into an institutional weakness. And it carried over to Marquis' successor, Steve Spratt.

That was unfortunate for Spratt, who was more of a civil-servant-in-chief. Spratt was the perfect assistant county administrator. He could organize departments, draft plans, hire consultants.

Cast in the role of county mayor by default, he failed to charm.

At first I was puzzled when Spratt led the county into one fight or PR mess after another, usually because he wanted to implement Plan 84X-Slash-C, and the pesky, ungrateful citizens were upset.

Why didn't the commission ever smooth things over? Instead, things would get worse and worse, and folks would get madder and madder, until either Spratt backed down (Fort De Soto, Brooker Creek pumping), or the county pushed its plan through anyway (airport expansion) and left another pocket of resentment.

Maybe they were still waiting for Fred to fix things.

* * *

A midsized scandal, a $225,000 land deal, ousted both Spratt and the county attorney, Susan Churuti.

It was an insider affair. The county's elected property appraiser decided he wanted the county to buy a piece of land he owned. He pushed, and the county obliged.

Spratt's resignation on Tuesday takes some of the heat off, but it would be wrong to say that taxpayers should be satisfied. No rhetoric about "putting this behind us," please.

The land is still bought. The property appraiser, Jim Smith, still got the $225,000. In fact, the severance packages of Spratt and Churuti will end up costing more than that, let alone the fees of consultants and lawyers and such.

Smith says that he did nothing wrong. As for the commissioners, who approved the deal 7-0 - another routine bit of rubber-stamping - so far none has volunteered to follow Spratt and Churuti.

* * *

Now this same County Commission has to choose a successor to Spratt. With any luck it will choose an administrator with both sets of skills, bureaucrat and politician.

With any luck, the commission will strike a new balance between micromanagement (bad) and vigorous questioning, oversight and agenda-setting (good).

Otherwise, the cycle is likely to repeat.

Spratt worked incredibly hard. His faults might have been balanced out by a more aggressive commission - even in this recent scandal, when any one of them could have raised a hand to stop it.

In the end, even the fact that he had to resign is the County Commission's failure.

[Last modified September 13, 2007, 00:31:19]


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