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Pinellas Commission may give administrator more land buying power

A little more than a year ago, a grand jury slammed Pinellas County's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land and urged those responsible to "take all steps necessary to restore confidence in our government."

The County Commission swiftly fired the county attorney. The county administrator was forced to resign. And the seven commissioners prostrated themselves before the public, vowing more transparency and accountability.

"We are beginning now to start the process of rebuilding this bridge of trust," Commissioner Ronnie Duncan said then.

Today the commission considers a proposal from a panel convened to improve the county's real estate practices to avoid another Smith fiasco. The measure would grant the county administrator authority to spend as much as $250,000 to purchase property without approval from the commission.

While a reform measure to some, at least one commissioner is saying the move isn't consistent with the promises voiced a year ago.

"We already went through a process where secrecy took place and full disclosure was not given," said County Commissioner Karen Seel. "I don't want secrecy to surround the county courthouse."

In June 2007, the commission voted unanimously to buy Smith's land for $225,000, nearly four times the value Smith's office gave the property. The purchase was to settle Smith's claim — later questioned by the grand jury — that county work crews had damaged his land. Commissioners maintain their staff of professionals failed to disclose key information and assured them the deal was clean.

The proposed increase to the administrator's powers comes from a panel assembled after the Smith debacle and charged with improving county real estate procedures. The group recommended giving the administrator wide authority in the real estate arena so that the commission could focus on policy and planning, thus streamlining the process.

The particulars were developed inside county government. A cap of $250,000 was selected, officials said, because current rules already allow the administrator to approve contracts and make change orders up to that amount without the commission's involvement.

Under the proposal's language as written Monday, the administrator would only have the power to make land buys that "advance the completion" of a capital project already approved by the commission. After being questioned by the St. Petersburg Times over whether the Smith purchase would have been possible under such terms, County Attorney Jim Bennett said the language was being narrowed to bar that possibility.

Not good enough, Seel said of Bennett's changes.

"This isn't going to happen again under my watch," she said, referring to the Smith mess. "So I'm not abdicating that authority to anyone, no matter how honest and good they are."

County Commissioner Ken Welch holds a different view. Welch said removing the commission could take politics out of the process. Further, he said, if you can't trust your administrator to use such authority wisely, maybe you've hired the wrong administrator.

While she believes the intent of the proposal is sound, County Commissioner Susan Latvala said she understands how it could have unintended and ugly consequences.

"We need to have a good discussion about it," she said.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Pinellas Commission may give administrator more land buying power 10/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 5:06pm]
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