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Commissioner was slow to share facts

Information in a land deal scandal didn't get to other Pinellas commissioners quickly.

By THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007

Appraiser Greg Johnson of Palm Harbor tours the Home Port Marina in Ozona on Monday while collecting pictures for a web project aimed at cataloging all Florida marinas.
[Douglas R. Clifford | Times]

[Keri Wiginton | Times]
Chairman Ronnie E. Duncan attends the County Commission meeting held at the Pinellas County Courthouse today. The meeting included a discussion on Pinellas County's acquisition of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

The day he voted to fire the county attorney, Pinellas Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan waved the grand jury's report on the Jim Smith land deal before television cameras.

"The presentment ... sums up what we all have on our minds right now," Duncan said. "And that is, how can we move forward and repair the process?"

But two weeks earlier, when a grand jury witness sent Duncan a 6-page letter proposing one such reform, Duncan didn't share it with fellow commissioners.

Duncan has been criticized before for not passing on important information in the Smith matter. Earlier this year, he did not tell colleagues that he had signed waivers authorizing County Attorney Susan Churuti to represent both Smith and the county in discussions of Smith's claim that the county had damaged his land.

Commissioners, including Duncan, have said the breakdown in communication contributed to a loss of public trust in county government.

This time, Duncan received information from private appraiser Greg Johnson, who had seen the Smith deal up close. The county had hired Johnson to give a second opinion on the appraisal in the Smith purchase.

In a letter hand-delivered to Duncan's office on Aug. 17, Johnson recommended moving the county's real estate division to give it more independence. He made the same recommendation to the grand jury, which included the idea in its report.

Duncan described Johnson's recommendations as "important" and said he sent the letter to County Administrator Steve Spratt for a response the day he received it. But Spratt and his staff say they did not know of the letter until the St. Petersburg Times obtained a copy from Johnson and started asking questions about it.

"I've checked with all my staff, and they don't have any record of seeing it," Spratt said.

Nor was the letter logged into the county's computer tracking system. Most often that's done in the commissioners' office, Spratt said, so they can track items.

In an interview with the Times editorial board on Monday, Duncan was asked why Johnson's letter didn't get logged into the county's computer system.

"I can't respond to that," he said. "That's not handled at my level."

And why not give it to other commissioners?

Duncan said he thought that would violate Florida's Sunshine Law, which requires elected officials to conduct their business in public. But the governor's special counsel for open government disagreed.

"The Sunshine Law does not prohibit one-way communication of documents between board members as long as there is no response to the document except in a public meeting," Pat Gleason said, "and the document must be kept as a public record."

- - -

Pete Yauch, the assistant county administrator over the real estate division, was irritated that the letter didn't reach him for three weeks. Once he got it, he arranged to meet with Johnson last week.

In the letter, Johnson said the appraisals and reviews the county gets before buying land are often rushed and based on limited information. That was "glaringly" clear in the Smith case, he wrote.

With the appraisal in hand, county officials agreed to buy Smith's land along Brooker Creek for $225,000 - nearly four times what his own office had the land assessed at for tax purposes. The grand jury criticized Smith and Churuti and recommended changes in county operations.

But for weeks after he delivered his letter, Johnson heard nothing.

"I was kind of astounded when I didn't receive any response," said Johnson, 60, whom the county hires to teach appraisal techniques to its staff.

Duncan's fellow commissioners have said that they would like to have known about the conflict waiver form Duncan signed for Churuti much sooner. Last week, several commissioners were eager to see Johnson's letter, too.

"Obviously, he was a key player," Commissioner Ken Welch said of Johnson. "And any insight he can give into the appraisal process, which obviously needs to improve, is important information to have."

When he was commission chairman, Welch said, letters like Johnson's were logged into the tracking system, scanned into a computer file, then e-mailed to the other commissioners.

"Any communication addressed to the board, we want to read it," said Commissioner Bob Stewart. "If it's addressed to the board chairman, then he would make copies and disseminate them to all the board members. That's procedure."

More than a month after Duncan received the letter, Commissioner Karen Seel asked her assistant to relay a message to a Times reporter:

"She doesn't have a copy and would like to know if you can fax her one."

- - -

In the interview with the Times editorial board, Duncan said he regrets not asking earlier, tougher and more public questions about the Smith deal.

"In looking back, there are things that I could have done, should have done," he said.

He should have questioned Churuti's actions in the Smith deal further, he said. "In hindsight, we needed counsel to deal with counsel," he said.

The appraisal of Smith's land was not sent to County Commissioners before the June 5 meeting where they unanimously approved the purchase. And Duncan said he did not read the appraisal prior to that vote.

A copy of the appraisal should have gone to all the commissioners, Duncan said.

"To be as transparent as possible to the public," he said, "I should have asked for a public presentation on the property."

Duncan was asked whether -- now that Churuti has been fired and Spratt has resigned -- voters should hold him accountable in the Smith case, too. He answered that voters should put what's happened in perspective with the good things he has done for the county.

"Every time that election day comes around, they should hold every one of us accountable for everything we do," Duncan said. "Not just this."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at or (727) 445-4170.

[Last modified September 25, 2007, 01:11:58]

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