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Pinellas commissioner's handling of overgrown lot stirs praise, concern

One man who lives near the vacant, rundown house at 11241 111th Place N in Largo says he called each county commissioner to complain. He says only Norm Roche returned his call.

DAVID DeCAMP | Times

One man who lives near the vacant, rundown house at 11241 111th Place N in Largo says he called each county commissioner to complain. He says only Norm Roche returned his call.

LARGO — Frustrated by a rundown house that has upset residents for years, Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche recently took matters into his own hands.

Ignoring plans by county attorneys and staff, Roche used his county purchasing card to hire a contractor for $250 to clean some of the overgrown lot.

The move made Roche a hero in the neighborhood where the house is located, but it may have violated the county charter and purchasing policies.

The charter requires commissioners to set policy and stay out of administrative matters other than suggestions to the county administrator.

County policy, meanwhile, says purchasing cards cannot be used for most work the county already has similar contracts for — such as cleaning lots.

But Roche insisted Monday he "followed protocol" to deal with a looming emergency and acted only after efforts by county staff were "unsuccessful."

"I did not usurp any powers," Roche said.

But County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala said Roche "absolutely" violated the charter and county policy.

She wants Roche to reimburse the county for the $250 spent on clearing the lot.

Roche interfered with the authority of County Administrator Bob LaSala, Latvala said. Using the purchasing card for the work "is a huge violation of the purchasing processes,'' she said. "You don't just call someone out of the phone book."

Though it's unclear what the county can do about it, Latvala called a special County Commission meeting Tuesday to discuss the issues after inquiries by the St. Petersburg Times.

Neighbors say Roche did the right thing.

"I called the county, I called all the commissioners. He's the only one of them that called me back," said neighbor Kevin Wissing.

The one-story house at 11241 111th Place in an unincorporated area near Largo has been vacant since owner Henry W. Kapala died several years ago.

The roof fell in, a gutter came down, and large trees and vines covered the sidewalk and yard.

Next-door neighbors John and Terri Bashoor said they smell hints of mold from the house some nights. Black runoff has poured across 10 feet of gravel and patio to their pool.

Since the owner's death, no one has accepted ownership of the house, so no one can be held accountable for the problems.

The county can mow and clear debris and try to collect from the owner by placing liens on the property.

The county filed four liens since October 2009 for mowing and unpaid utility bills at the house.

In the past year, the county has received 5,117 housing complaints. Meanwhile, the real estate market collapse makes abandoned homes more common. That's the over-arching problem, Roche said.

The county can repair or raze hazardous property, but only $10,000 is budgeted for that this year countywide — and it was committed to another house.

In the case of the house on 111th Place, code enforcement director Todd Myers said, "It's not a major health and safety issue."

Myers, who joined the county in 1996, said it is the first time he can recall a commissioner dictating work like this.

Roche tackled the case personally after Wissing called in August. It wasn't out of character for Roche, 49, a first-year commissioner with an independent streak that can clash with some fellow commissioners.

Roche's use of his county purchasing card to buy $2,600 in office furniture from a consignment shop in February also is being questioned by Latvala.

Roche said that purchase was proper, saying he is an "independently elected'' office holder. The same goes for what he did about the house on 111th Place.

"If we can work within our structure and it cannot get done, than we as representatives are charged with getting it done. And I'd do it again," Roche said during a recent commission meeting.

Roche sent a Sept. 2 e-mail to LaSala, Myers and County Attorney Jim Bennett saying the house may be "an immediate public health/safety and environment hazard."

But a magistrate did not agree, and Myers, in a Sept. 20 e-mail, called the problems "routine." A Sept. 27 inspection could bring tougher sanctions, Myers added.

But a day before that inspection, Roche hired Pinellas Lawns to work on the property, records show. The county has a contract with Marlow Maintenance, which is paid up to $75 a lot for mowing and $25 per cubic yard of debris.

Pinellas Lawns cleared debris and overgrowth from the street and sidewalk and into the yard, which Roche says was in the public right of way.

Roche's assistant, Cheryl Stumpf, said they considered several businesses. "It was just a case of who has the best price and who could get there the quickest," she said.

During at least two recent County Commission meetings, Roche spoke of the house without mentioning the purchasing card. LaSala told him that directing such work was going too far.

At a different meeting, Commissioner Ken Welch said direct control by commissioners instead of administrators can lead to problems. "That is the job of the administrator and their staff," he said.

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

Pinellas commissioner's handling of overgrown lot stirs praise, concern 10/31/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 12:15am]
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