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Politics

County to take time to hire administrator

Traits wanted: openness, political instinct.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007


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Fallout from the Jim Smith land deal debacle has left Pinellas County government dazed, unsteady and in search of new leadership.

The County Commission last week fired Susan Churuti, the county attorney for 20 years. Tuesday, it voted to accept the resignation of County Administrator Steve Spratt, a nearly six-year veteran who will step down at the end of the month.

Commissioners have different thoughts about what they'll be looking for as they seek to replace two of their top advisers. But most agree that openness and keen political instincts will be important traits.

Commissioners also say they plan to move deliberately.

"It's not a thing that can be or should be rushed," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart. "If it takes extra time to get to the right decision, we will take the extra time."

The departure of Spratt and Churuti stems from the county's controversial June 5 purchase of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith for nearly four times the value assigned the lot for tax purposes.

A grand jury report on the deal found no criminal wrongdoing but was critical of the role played by Churuti and Spratt's administration in the transaction.

Commissioners agreed that replacing Spratt will be most difficult. The 52-year-old administrator, who will leave with a year's severance pay of about $223,500, was admired for his thoroughness, work ethic and skill as a financial manager.

But commissioners said Spratt was tone-deaf when it came to politics, a trait that sometimes landed them in trouble with the public. Some of Spratt's plans, such as putting ballfields in Brooker Creek Preserve or a restaurant at Fort De Soto, left commissioners on the hook when hundreds of voters called or wrote to express their outrage.

In a discussion with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Wednesday, Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, another executive who works for elected leaders, said it was clear that Spratt was stumbling.

"I think he's paid to make tough decisions," Wilcox said. "But I think he was out of step with his elected board on a number of key issues."

Spratt's replacement will need a sensitivity to public perception and the ability to make friends that Spratt lacked, some commissioners said.

"It has to be somebody who understands budgets," County Commissioner Susan Latvala said of Spratt's successor, "but most importantly a team builder and a people person. He lacked those people skills."

County Commissioner Ken Welch said he hoped Spratt's successor can promote a more transparent administration and will value dissent. In the grand jury report on the deal to buy Smith's land, jurors found low-level staffers who voiced concerns about the transaction were ignored.

"In the environment going forward, those folks need to be heard," Welch said.

Attempts to reach Spratt on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The commission meets next Tuesday and will finalize its separation from Spratt and name an interim administrator. Among those mentioned for the interim post are Mark Woodard, Spratt's deputy, and assistant county administrators Elithia Stanfield and Liz Warren.

"I think the role of the interim is to keep the ship going straight and forward, to maintain an even keel," said Gay Lancaster, now executive director of the county Juvenile Welfare Board.

Lancaster served as interim administrator for more than a year after Fred Marquis stepped down in 2000 after more than two decades in the role. Spratt took over in late 2001.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett has replaced Susan Churuti on an interim basis. Commissioners called Churuti a brilliant government attorney, perhaps the best in the state, and said they would be looking for somebody who could match her professional expertise.

But several also said they need somebody who can help repair the damage. Churuti did not disclose the role she played in the Smith transaction to the full board until after the deal closed.

"I'm looking for a communicator, a team player," Welch said, "and frankly someone who is going to give the commission unbiased legal advice."

The commission plans to hold a meeting later this month where a nationwide search for replacements will be discussed.

Wilcox, the school superintendent, echoed many in the public and on the commission who are dismayed that Spratt and Churuti have lost their jobs while Smith has managed to avoid immediate repercussions.

"The one who needs to go is still sitting there," Wilcox said.

Smith has said he will run for re-election next year, which would give voters a chance to register their level of support. Also, Stewart said he hopes Gov. Charlie Crist, who could suspend Smith, takes action in the case.

"I'm surprised, I guess, that his office has not weighed in on this issue," Stewart said. "And I'm hopeful that they would do that."

Attempts to reach Crist on Wednesday for this story were not successful. A reporter who went to see Smith at his office Wednesday was told the appraiser was there but unavailable.

Staff writer Tom Tobin contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727 445-4166.

[Last modified September 13, 2007, 00:24:10]


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