When Ken Welch applied for the job as executive director for the Juvenile Welfare Board, he didn’t consider that act might become a point of partisan bickering and political speculation.
The longtime Pinellas County Commissioner explained in a Feb. 22 interview that he only agreed to apply after members of the JWB Board of Directors and others urged him to do so.
“First of all, JWB was not on my radar until after January,” he said, countering media speculation on his motives.
Several board members approached him because they believed JWB would benefit from Welch’s leadership due to his political savvy, which he said was one of the qualifications listed on the job application.
JWB will be asking residents to approve a referendum in 2016 that will help maintain and expand services to poor and working class families and at-risk children in Pinellas. The board is looking for someone that can help push that cause forward.
Welch said he did not apply until after JWB extended the application period. He said he studied the matter and felt his qualifications were a good match for the job. Welch served on the JWB board for six years including a stint as chair of the finance and audit committee.
“I didn’t expect this to become a political and partisan issue,” he said.
But after receiving a phone call from state Sen. Jack Latvala and enduring criticism from some in the Republican Party and the media, Welch, who is one of three Democrats on the county commission, decided his leadership would not be best for JWB and its future.
“JWB’s mission is far too important,” he said. “I pulled my name from the applicants.”
In a letter to the JWB board, he thanked them for the support he received since applying for the job as executive director.
Welch wrote, “I believe my skills, knowledge and experience would serve the JWB organization well.
“Since applying for the position, however, it has become obvious that in the minds of some, my political persona overshadows all other aspects of my business, managerial and professional experience – including 14 years of progressive and diverse experience with Fortune 500 companies and six years on the JWB board.”
While disappointed, Welch said he is at peace with his decision. But, it is obvious that he was very interested in the possibility of leading JWB after longtime executive director Gay Lancaster leaves in June.
He called the job a “unique situation,” adding that in his view a community’s “most valuable investment is in our children.” Money spent helping a child is a better buy than funding jails, legal systems and health and human services, he said.
In some ways, the JWB job would have been going back to his start toward public service. Welch ran for school board in 1998 and was defeated in a run-off election by Republican and former county commissioner Nancy Bostock. Welch comes from a family of educators. His dad and siblings are teachers and principals.
“I really believe in the importance of education,” he said.
JWB plays an instrumental part in helping underprivileged kids get ready for school. Welch said serving on the JWB board made him aware of the importance of its mission. Serving as chair of the finance committee brought him in tune with the financial challenges.
Welch is one of four commissioners facing lawsuits challenging the legality of their service due to a 1996 term limits referendum that was ultimately found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The court overturned its 2002 decision in May of 2012.
If the plaintiffs win, Welch, as well as Commissioners Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Karen Seel could be removed from office or barred from running for reelection in the future.
Welch said the lawsuit had some impact on his decision to apply for the JWB job.
“But term limits was not the driving factor,” he said. “It was my past experience with JWB and my passion for youth services and education – big issues that we face as a county.”
Welch still has documents from his time on the JWB board. He reviewed those documents, as well as the organization’s strategic plan.
“There were so many synergies with what the county is doing, especially the Healthy Community Initiatives,” he said.
In fact, the five areas the county targeted – East Tarpon Springs, North Greenwood, Highpoint, Lealman Corridor and South St. Petersburg - are the same as JWB’s.
Welch said if you added his private sector experience to his belief in the mission, the job was a “good fit.” He regrets that partisan politics stood in his way, especially since the former Republican has friends in both parties.
“It’s a shame I couldn’t get to the point where they could judge me on my qualifications,” he said.
Welch, who serves as chair of the county commission this year, also weathered some criticism for perceived willingness to leave county government.
“I remain focused on the commission,” he said, adding that his intent was never to leave before the end of the year, even though JWB needs a new executive director by June.
Following his path
Welch never intended to have a career as an elected official. Things just fell into place.
After his defeat in the school board election, Sen. Latvala asked if he would be interested in serving on the St. Pete College Board of Trustees, a position that required Senate confirmation. Soon after, Pinellas County voters approved adding two single member districts to the county commission, including one in St. Petersburg, Welch’s hometown, “where I rode my bike as a kid,” he said.
He successfully ran for office and, at the time, only intended to serve one term.
“But as I got into my shoes and got projects going, I ran again,” he said.
The rest is history.
Welch confessed that even before lawsuits were filed that put his service to the county in jeopardy, he had decided not to run again.
“Four terms is enough,” he said.
Welch, the only African-American on the commission, has long been an advocate of the homeless and those less fortunate. He has worked to push the county toward new technology. He believes in a progressive Pinellas.
He said the county has become more partisan in recent years, as evidenced by the attempts to block social action funding, affordable housing and transit. He said one local group had gone so far as to post on its website, “our mission is to stop Ken Welch.”
Despite the controversy and uncertainty, Welch remains committed to his job.
“I want to continue the fight for housing, transit and services we need as a community,” he said.
He is encouraged to be one of three Democrats on the commission. For the first time ever, two Republicans lost their seats on the commission in the last election.
“We used to be progressive Pinellas and we’re going back to that now,” he said.
When asked about media reports that he has long intended to run for mayor of St. Petersburg, he admitted he is interested, but said it wasn’t necessarily a life-long dream.
“To be mayor of my hometown and have the opportunity to move the city forward is something I’d like to consider, but I’ll wait for 2017 and see,” he said. “It depends on who wins (in August). (Former state Rep. Rick) Kriseman is a good friend.”
For now, Welch plans to focus on commission business, transportation and emergency medical services among others. He said he is ready for the challenges.
And, if need be, the 47-year-old father of two can always go back to the private sector where he can put his more than 14 years of experience in accounting and technology skills to work. In addition, he’s been working on some business models for his family’s business – taxes and accounting.
“That’s dad’s business. He’s 85 now,” Welch said.
Welch isn’t overly worried about his future. He knows when one door closes, another opens.
“We never know what God has in store for us,” he said. “I’m at perfect peace with this. It happened for a reason.”