LARGO — Officials in Safety Harbor breathed a sigh of relief Thursday after former finance director JoAnne Ryan pleaded guilty to second-degree grand theft.
"I am certainly glad Ms. Ryan did the right thing by admitting her guilt,'' said Mayor Andy Steingold. "Now we can all begin the road to recovery.''
City Commissioner Joe Ayoub said he is relieved there will be no "prolonged trial'' that would use the city's resources.
Yet both expressed frustration because although the charge carries up to 15 years in prison, under a plea agreement, Ryan would serve no more than two years and could get as little as probation.
"We certainly provided enough information to the State Attorney's Office for them to have charged her with first-degree grand theft,'' Steingold said.
Ayoub said he's upset, too, but asked, "What's the alternative?'
"The state prosecutor put the case together as best as he could'' he said. "We're moving in the direction of putting it behind us. We get to focus on the future.''
Ryan was fired last August after City Manager Matt Spoor discovered that she had been using the city's credit card to buy personal things since 2007, most in connection with a basketball team on which her daughters played.
She was arrested the next month and charged with making more than $15,000 in American Express charges.
Assistant State Attorney Gregory Groger said that is the only charge Ryan has admitted to.
He said he "feels comfortable with the charge we have'' and that his office cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she took more than that.
But in April, forensic auditors hired by the city found that more than $215,000 had vanished in the last year Ryan headed the finance department.
Neither Ryan, 49, nor her lawyer, Ronnie Crider, had any comment after Thursday's hearing.
Ryan is expected to pay restitution, but the question of how much won't be answered until her Aug. 7 sentencing.
"While the Safety Harbor community is happy to finally put this issue behind us, the fact remains that Ms. Ryan stole from 18,000 residents,'' said Spoor.
"The public entrusts government employees to work for the betterment of their neighborhoods and cities, and Ms. Ryan betrayed that trust. I hope the court will provide the citizens of Safety Harbor a measure of justice that will restore the confidence they have lost in their municipal government.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.