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County may defend courthouse designer

Pinellas County commissioners will be asked today to defend a county employee who has been accused of designing the county's new misdemeanor courthouse without a license, prompting a statewide effort to crack down on such practices. County Attorney Susan Churuti will ask the County Commission for authority to defend Gerry Cora in a state Department of Professional Regulation (DPR) investigation. Cora is an employee of the county's General Services Administration who designed the county's $1.2-million renovation of a former warehouse on 49th Street N in Largo.

DPR investigators are looking into one of two complaints they received alleging that Cora spearheaded the renovation despite his lack of a license to practice architecture, Assistant County Attorney Sarah Richardson said.

Cora was notified of the investigation, and county attorneys would like to defend him on matters that also concern the county's handling of the courthouse renovation, Richardson said.

County officials have said the in-house renovation saved them $800,000 over the cost of having a private architect. They claim local governments are exempt from the state law requiring the hiring of a licensed architect.

The details of the investigation are confidential, Richardson said.

"It's a confidential matter until probable cause is found, or not found," Richardson said. "If probable cause is not found, the thing goes away. . . . It is up to DPR."

Still, county officials are not simply waiting for investigators to complete their probe.

In a letter dated April 26, County Administrator Fred Marquis told the chairman of the Board of Architecture and Interior Design that the county had complied with all state laws in the design and construction of the misdemeanor courthouse, which was completed in November.

"Pinellas County is very concerned about being "a good citizen,'

" Marquis wrote to Walter Martinez, chairman of the architecture board. "It is not in the best interest of any county to circumvent the law."

In January, David Fronczak, the former chairman of the architecture board, confirmed that he had received two complaints that Pinellas County had acted improperly in its design of the courthouse. Fronczak said he was particularly concerned by reports that Cora lacked a license while working on the project.

Martinez, the current chairman, said the board has not met to discuss the investigation.

In the meantime, a panel of architects and engineers is drawing up guidelines the board of architecture will distribute to city and county officials throughout the state, spelling out what state law requires them to do when designing public projects.

The guidelines will make it clear that professional architects and engineers are required on municipal projects, Martinez said. "There absolutely has to be a professional in charge, responsible for it," Martinez said.