Chief administrators in Pinellas have new powers to buy and lease land with reduced oversight from their boss, the County Commission.
Tuesday, the commission in a split vote approved giving its top administrator freedom to spend up to $250,000 on real estate deals. The move is meant as a procedural reform following the land deal scandal involving Property Appraiser Jim Smith last year.
Greater efficiency in land lease and purchase operations is one aim of the measure, as is reduced political influence. The lone vote in dissent came from County Commissioner Karen Seel, who said she was unwilling to give up such a level of fiduciary control, especially in light of the Smith fiasco.
"Part of our role is watching tax dollars," Seel said after the vote. "I am just trying to be extra cautious."
In June 2007, the commission voted unanimously and with no discussion to buy Smith's land for $225,000, almost quadruple the value Smith's office had given the property. A grand jury convened and issued a damning report. Commissioners have insisted their professional staff withheld details and assured them the deal was clean.
Following the debacle, a panel was convened that included former Florida Power chief executive Andrew Hines, St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler, St. Petersburg Housing Authority Commissioner Deveron Gibbons, Mark Mahaffey, who heads the Mahaffey Co., and retired real estate executive Stephen Meyers.
Among their recommendations: give the administrator, the chief executive of county government, broader authority in routine real estate matters so the commission could concentrate on issues of policy and long-term planning.
County officials developed the details. A cap of $250,000 was chosen because current rules already permit the administrator to approve contracts for services and make change orders without the commission being involved.
There are limits to the administrator's new power. Acting alone, the administrator may only make land leases and purchases that "advance the completion" of a project budgeted within the county's capital improvement plan, which the commission controls.
In practice, that means the administrator can spend as much as $250,000 for a given piece of land, so long as the purchase can be justified as furthering a broader public works initiative the commission has already blessed.
County Commissioner Ken Welch said giving the administrator such authority compliments other reforms spawned by the Smith affair, such as full disclosure from county attorneys when representing multiple clients and distancing public works operations from those handling real estate deals.
Most significantly, he said, it reduces the role of politics.
"The other alternative is for seven commissioners to intercede in real estate transactions," Welch said. "I don't think that's the way you want to go."
Commission chairman Bob Stewart agreed, dismissing the suggestion that under the new rules elected officials could easily claim ignorance if a questionable purchase is made.
"The board can't insulate itself from ultimate responsibility," he said.
Joining Stewart and Welch in support were Commissioners Susan Latvala and Ronnie Duncan. County Commissioner John Morroni, diagnosed recently with lymphoma, was absent. County Commissioner Calvin Harris was also absent due to a death in his family.
Will Van Sant can be reached at email@example.com or 727-445-4166.