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Jim Smith land deal clouds county election

When the Jim Smith land deal exploded into view last summer, conventional wisdom was that the scandal would overshadow Pinellas County's 2008 elections.

But on Friday, as qualification for the ballot closed, just two candidates linked to the controversy remain: County Commissioner Karen Seel and property appraiser candidate Pam Dubov, who worked for Smith.

Smith, the county property appraiser, announced in November that he would not run. Commissioners Bob Stewart and Ronnie Duncan, who took part in the 7-0 vote to buy Smith's land, opted not to seek re-election.

And Commissioner Ken Welch was automatically re-elected Friday when no one filed to run against him.

The remaining three commissioners aren't up for re-election for another two years.

But that won't stop Seel and Dubov's opponents from raising the issue.

Norm Roche, a Democrat challenging Seel, a Republican, in the general election Nov. 4, contends the commission's actions spoke to their disregard for taxpayers and a lack of curiosity about the work of the county staff.

"I would say in core principle she failed to do her duty," Roche 46, said of Seel. "And not just her, seven out of seven of them, to be fair, failed to do their duty."

Commissioners raised no questions in public last June before approving the $225,000 purchase of a small vacant parcel Smith owned in North Pinellas. The sale was meant to resolve Smith's claim that county work crews had damaged his land doing flood mitigation. The amount was nearly quadruple what Smith's office had assigned the lot for tax purposes.

In August, after the St. Petersburg Times highlighted the deal, a grand jury issued a damning report. While no one was indicted, the report condemned how the deal's handling. The commission fired its county attorney, Susan Churuti. County administrator Steve Spratt was forced to resign.

Seel, 49, repeated Friday that Spratt assured her in a private meeting before the vote that the deal was handled appropriately.

Seel said she wishes she had asked Spratt publicly the question she put to him privately, but believes she most likely would have gotten the same answer.

"Things just don't get past me," Seel said. "That fact that this one did really bothered me, because during my history of public service, I think I have made people more accountable."

Dubov, who has never answered questions before about the Smith deal, did so for the first time Friday, a day after she resigned her post as deputy property appraiser in Smith's office to campaign.

Dubov said she warned Smith the public would look askance at the difference between the appraised value and the sales price.

In the Aug. 26 primary her opponent is Frank Gregoire. The winner will face Democrat Ben Friedlander in the general election.

A private appraiser for 30 years, Gregoire, 55, said Dubov should have gone public with her feelings about Smith's decision to cut a deal with the county.

Jim Smith land deal clouds county election 06/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 5:06pm]
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