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Pinellas clerk uses auditor to review courts changes

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's internal auditor usually puts a microscope on spending after mistakes occur.

That's why county officials are irked by Pinellas Clerk of Courts Ken Burke's surprising request to have the auditor examine a county plan that isn't even finished.

Burke asked the Division of Inspector General to evaluate the county's $225 million plan to expand the judicial complex and jail, as well as selling the historic 501 Building in downtown St. Petersburg. Traffic courts in south and north Pinellas would shift to the current Criminal Justice Complex on 49th Street N in mid-Pinellas, as would family law courts in Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Burke used the report's findings to bludgeon the plan at a County Commission work session Tuesday, saying it contained "unworkable" holes and shifted staff in a "schizophrenic" way.

"My opinion has never been solicited on how this would impact the clerk's office, other than an initial meeting to tell me about the plan," Burke said.

County officials fired back, saying Burke's use of internal auditors was out of bounds.

"Very inappropriate," Commissioner Susan Latvala said of the auditor's inquiry. "It's not an operation. How does the inspector general know what this (plan) is going to look like?"

County Administrator Bob LaSala said Burke's request "puzzled" him, saying he had not seen such a use of an auditor in his nearly 40 years in the public sector.

The inspector general usually checks performance after the fact, though it also can investigate fraud and misuse of public resources. Recent audits uncovered lax accounting of $3 million in utility materials and sloppy handling of a $3.4 million housing loan that went unpaid.

Burke defended the use of Inspector General Hector Collazo's office, saying auditors can take part in helping plan changes.

"We encourage using the IG for consulting reports throughout the county," said Burke, a Republican seeking his third term in this year's election. "Matter of fact, I wish the IG was used more throughout the county. (That) would prevent a lot of problems."

There was no similar report in the public online archive of internal auditing in recent years.

Several commissioners demanded better communications between Burke and LaSala's staff, particularly after Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he couldn't vouch for some of the estimated savings that LaSala's staff used to bolster the case for the court changes.

The plan envisions $560,000 a year in security savings, but Gualtieri said the "number was never vetted through me."

Regardless of the audit, Burke needs to be included, Commissioner Ken Welch said afterward. During the meeting, he paused the discussion when LaSala started a side conversation with another county official.

"Bob, I want to have your attention for a second, because I am speaking to you as well. You can't ignore these statements from a major stakeholder," Welch said.

"Absolutely," LaSala replied.

LaSala acknowledged better communication should happen, but also defended staffers, saying the planning is complex and staff tried to reach out to affected officeholders.

"We've heard a lot of commentary here that the public might draw some other conclusions from," he said.

Though county officials said they tried to include the clerk and other branches of government, Chief Judge Thomas McGrady and real estate staff led the push.

The proposal unveiled late last year was only initial plans, county officials stressed, and shouldn't be regarded as a finished plan.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes

.fast facts

Proposed Pinellas courts changes

• Traffic courts move out of the North County Service Center off U.S. 19 N in Clearwater, south of Curlew Road and the South County Service Center off 66th Street N in St. Petersburg. New location: Criminal Justice Complex off 49th Street N in mid-Pinellas.

• Family law courts would move from downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater to the justice complex, which ultimately would be expanded with a new parking garage.

• The historic 501 Building at 501 First Ave. N in downtown St. Petersburg would be sold. Pinellas purchased the 1923 building in 2001 for $5.4 million.

• Courts staff of 71 employees would move from Clearwater and St. Petersburg to 49th Street N.

Pinellas clerk uses auditor to review courts changes 02/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 12:19am]
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