tampabay.com

Official was slow to share the facts

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

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


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 six-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 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 asked 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 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.

The governor's special counsel for open government disagreed, saying that one-way communications aren't prohibited.

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.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or 727 445-4170.