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Records of Nicolette's investment properties withheld

County Commission candidate John Nicolette owns 14 properties in Pasco worth more than $4-million.

But punch his name into the county's online property records databases, and nothing comes up.

Using a public records exemption that shields the home address of public safety officials — including Nicolette, a Tampa firefighter — Property Appraiser Mike Wells and Tax Collector Mike Olson have blocked the public's access to information about all of Nicolette's investment properties.

Rather than simply redact the home address from those forms, the records don't exist online.

Those records include information on the location and value of the investment properties, as well as the taxes paid on every piece of land Nicolette owns.

A Times reporter obtained information only after visiting the offices in person and getting a Times attorney involved.

But it's a tenet of open government — and particularly, state law — that property records in Florida are public. Neighbors can see what neighbors are paying in property taxes — and what tax breaks they receive.

Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation, said withholding the records appears to violate the law. State legal and tax advisories say records of investment properties — 13 of the 14 Nicolette parcels — are public.

"We want to make sure that a property owner is not getting a special tax break, a special deal, for being a commissioner," Harper said.

Nicolette, who listed all of his properties in a campaign disclosure form, said every record should be available.

"The minute I found out, I said I don't have a problem with this," Nicolette said. "I have absolutely no problem with anybody having any of the information, because I'm running for office."

An election splash

Land issues have become especially important in Nicolette's Republican primary Aug. 26 against incumbent Ted Schrader.

Nicolette helped a waste company acquire land for a controversial landfill proposed near Dade City, and made unusual demands about land he wanted to donate to San Antonio.

In 1997, Schrader and his family quickly bought 790 acres in east Pasco, then sold the development rights to a state agency for about the same cost, keeping control of the land. In 2004, he and his family sold 1,000 acres along Curley Road to developers for $15.5-million.

Schrader's records, encompassing 13 parcels worth $1.6-million in Pasco and Manatee counties, are accessible.

Nicolette's are not.

Under Florida law, public safety officials can ask government agencies to block the release of their home address, telephone numbers and photographs on virtually any record. The exemption protects them from having their personal contact information displayed to anyone who might hurt them.

Wells said he has to protect the locations from disclosure.

But the exemption doesn't apply to properties besides homes.

"Addresses of properties that are not used as homes … are public record and not exempt from disclosure," wrote James McAdams, Florida's property tax oversight director, in a Nov. 15 bulletin to property appraisers.

'Not what I do'

Property Appraiser Mike Wells, a Republican re-elected this year without opposition, first provided short printouts of Nicolette's property records after a Times reporter requested them in person Wednesday.

But the locations of all the properties — not just Nicolette's home — were missing. In two cases, ownership details were incomplete.

Pressed by the Times, Wells provided the full records to the newspaper Friday.

"I'm not going to show anyone his information unless Nicolette says it's okay to do so," Wells told the Times. "The only reason I gave the records to you is he put the information on his (campaign) disclosure form."

But that's not how it works in Sumter County, where the property appraiser's record of Nicolette's vacant lot worth $16,000 is online.

A clerk there said the record can't be withheld because Nicolette's home isn't there.

On Friday, Wells said Nicolette's full records would go online only if he won the election. But none of the other records involving public safety officials who requested the exemption — affecting hundreds of properties — will be available online or in person, Wells said.

Eventually, Wells said, he will make public any record that doesn't have a protected home address on it. But that would still block records of investment properties featuring the home mailing address of the owner.

Wells said he does not want to spend time redacting information from copies of records, as police and other officials routinely do to follow the law.

"I don't want to get into the redacting business. That's not what I do," Wells said. "My job is to create a tax roll."

A technical question

Hours after a reporter and Times attorney on Wednesday questioned the withholding of the records, Tax Collector Mike Olson's office agreed to provide records, with addresses removed in some cases.

At first, Olson's office offered little explanation.

"Mr. Olson has instructed that any answers to your questions be not for publication," Assistant Tax Collector Tom Stearns said.

Olson, a Democrat re-elected this year without opposition, did not return messages.

Later, Stearns promised that anyone could obtain property tax payment records in person. The office will work with lawyers to get information online, too.

Nicolette never requested secrecy from the Tax Collector's Office, but information was blocked because Wells did it, Stearns said.

Yet Stearns acknowledged Wells has nothing to do with the tax payment records Olson's office collects — another item for the tax collector's attorney to review.

As is fully putting records on the Internet, Stearns said, adding one more item on the attorney's to-do list.

And off the public record.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

Records of Nicolette's investment properties withheld 06/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 12:05pm]
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