Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan announced Tuesday that he will not seek a second term.
While serving as commission chairman last year, Duncan was enmeshed in the county's controversial purchase of land privately owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.
The deal sparked a grand jury investigation and upended county leadership. Had he run, the 50-year-old Republican would have faced further questions about his role.
"We would have gone after him," said Toni Molinaro, head of Pinellas' Democratic Party. "We don't need cronyism."
Duncan said the Smith affair would have undoubtedly led to unpleasant campaign attacks, but insisted he was stepping down out of a desire to spend more time with his family, especially his young children.
"No one likes to be criticized," Duncan said. "But honestly that's a small piece of the puzzle. I know what I did and didn't do and sleep well at night."
The announcement prompted Republican contenders to step forward and enter the race or express interest. Though the lone Democrat in the contest, Paul Matton, will no longer face Duncan, he hopes distaste for the status quo will help him beat whoever wins the GOP primary.
"Game's on," said Matton, a Clearwater businessman. "I feel that I'm a good candidate and I can make this happen."
Last June, commissioners voted to buy 1.5 acres of undeveloped land in the Tarpon Woods area of North Pinellas from Smith, who has served as property appraiser for 20 years. Smith had alleged that county works crews damaged his property while doing flood repairs.
The county paid him $225,000 — nearly four times the taxable value Smith's own office assigned the land.
Scandal ensued. Though the grand jury on the case indicted no one, county leaders who handled the deal were faulted.
The St. Petersburg Times reported in December that Duncan, who publicly castigated the county administrator and county attorney for their involvement, was involved far deeper in the transaction than he had disclosed.
Phone records, documents and interviews showed Duncan was in contact with Smith about his complaint early in the process, that he pressed the county administrator to move the transaction along and went outside the chain of command to tell key staffers the issue needed to get resolved.
In three interviews late last year, Duncan sometimes revised earlier accounts of what he did when. Sometimes his memory failed. But he denied wrongdoing.
"I didn't treat Jim Smith other than who he is — a normal citizen," Duncan said last year. "Now in hindsight, he did get some expedited service."
In the weeks after the grand jury's presentment, longtime County Attorney Susan Churuti was fired by commissioners for her role in the Smith deal and County Administrator Steve Spratt resigned after receiving harsh criticism from the board.
Commission Chairman Bob Stewart, who is expected to announce later this week whether he plans to run again, said Duncan should have disclosed more information to his fellow board members, but he doesn't think there was anything inappropriate about his dealings with Smith.
Yet having been chairman, Stewart said Duncan is inseparably linked to the Smith fiasco.
"He would have had to recount and reface those accusations and insinuations," Stewart said. "It would not have been pretty."
Veteran Pinellas School Board member Jane Gallucci, a Republican, formally entered the race for Duncan's countywide seat Tuesday. She joins Ray Brooks, who lost in a bid to oust County Commissioner Susan Latvala in 2006.
Former Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson and former Safety Harbor City Commissioner Neil Brickfield both say they have an interest in Duncan's seat. But neither Republican has committed to a run.
The coming battle began to take shape Tuesday, as Gallucci touted her experience as a vetted, countywide candidate who knows how to make tough financial decisions. That prompted Brickfield, himself a player in local GOP politics, to say:
"She's a School Board member. She also has a 12-year record as a School Board member. The Pinellas County Commission appears to need a fresh set of eyes, not another insider."
The primary is Aug. 26.
Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] or 445-4166.