Their day is coming

Published September 13, 2007

Pinellas County commissioners seemed relieved Tuesday to accept the resignation of County Administrator Steve Spratt, as if that will right the train that ran off the track when the county quietly and quickly bought Property Appraiser Jim Smith's overpriced land and brought on a grand jury investigation. Yet the two parties most responsible for the debacle, Smith and the commissioners themselves, have so far escaped accountability. And there is no justice in that.

Smith was the instigator, threatening to sue unless the county paid up for alleged damage to his vacant, flood-prone land by crews working to prevent blockages in a creek. He used his public position for personal gain, bullying the county into spending $225,000 for land his own staff appraisers had valued for tax purposes at only $59,400.

The grand jury found much to criticize in Smith's behavior, pointing out discrepancies on his financial disclosure forms and hinting at his apparent effort to influence the staff member who appraised his land. It also called on state legislators to pass a bill requiring independent reviews of the appraisals on property owned by county property appraisers.

Smith betrayed the public trust, yet he denies any misbehavior and refuses to resign. The two top county officials appointed by the County Commission, Spratt and County Attorney Susan Churuti, have lost their jobs because of this scandal. But Smith can smugly remain in office at least until his current term expires in November 2008.

County commissioners also have yet to be held accountable, but their day will come. They fired Churuti, which was appropriate, and quickly accepted the resignation by Spratt, who did the right thing. Yet it was the commissioners who uttered not a public word and voted unanimously in June to purchase Smith's land. They maintained a code of silence and failed to publicly question the purchase price, the quality of the appraisals or the speed with which the deal zoomed through staff review.

After Spratt offered to resign Tuesday, Commissioner Bob Stewart raised the issue of commission accountability and lamented the loss of Spratt as administrator.

"I think Steve's action today is unselfish and in a long way his contribution to bailing out this board," Stewart said. "We put ourselves above the administrator, and above the attorney, and above the property appraiser, and we stay on. I'm not sure that's the fair way this works. If we think we're beyond fault, we stay as business as usual. If we think we did something wrong, why should everyone else pay a higher price than we do?"

Good question, but no commissioner offered to resign Tuesday. They voted unanimously to accept Spratt's resignation, though.

Spratt's support among commissioners was tenuous at best, and it would have been difficult for him to function effectively under the cloud of a reprimand. He made serious mistakes in handling the Smith land deal, including rushing it and accepting an inadequate appraisal. But in almost six years as administrator, he was hardworking, competent, sometimes visionary, and dutiful to the County Commission's policy directions. His primary failing before the Smith affair was an inability to correctly gauge public sentiment on several controversial issues, including the appropriate use of Brooker Creek Preserve.

At a time of great challenge for all local governments in Florida, Pinellas County now is without leaders in its two top appointed slots. Those openings will be filled, but real change will not come to Pinellas County government until the elected county commissioners accept that they owe the public transparency and accountability in all matters.