Registered Democrats in District 7 have a choice between Ken Welch and Maria Scruggs to run against Republican Buck Walz in the Nov. 2 general election.
District 7 includes Gulfport, Kenneth City, South Pasadena, the southern half of St. Petersburg and a portion of Lealman, Pinellas Park and Seminole.
Welch, the incumbent, currently serves as vice-chair on the Pinellas County Commission. He was first elected to serve District 7 in 2000. Welch, 47, and Scruggs, 54, hail from St. Petersburg.
Scruggs has no experience as an elected official, but she lists her 30-plus years in public service among her qualifications to serve as a county commissioner, according to a questionnaire sent to each candidate.
She has served at all levels of management in areas of corrections, law enforcement, special taxing district and the Juvenile Welfare Board. She lists her work as St. Petersburg Housing Authority Hope VI director and project director for St. Anthony’s Healthcare.
This is not her first election. She ran unsuccessfully against former county Commissioner Bob Stewart in 2004 and she lost a bid for St. Petersburg mayor in 2001.
Welch lists the 12 different boards and committees on which he currently serves as his qualifications, including chairing the Homeless Leadership Network, vice-chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board of Directors and first vice-chair of the Florida Association of Counties. He lists an additional 25 boards and committees he has served on in the past, ranging from the St. Petersburg Junior College Board of Trustees to serving as the strategic planning chair or the St. Pete Boys and Girls Club Board of Managers.
The candidates were asked what one thing makes them more qualified to serve than their opponent.
“I have a strong record of leadership and collaboration, both in Pinellas County and statewide,” Welch said. “I’ve led on public safety, housing, homelessness, youth, economic development, environmental, and other core issues. Along the way, I’ve received leadership awards from our Florida Association of Counties, County Firefighters, Catholic Charities, the Florida Homeless Coalition, and other organizations for leadership on important issues facing our community.”
“I have over 30-plus years working within the public sector,” Scruggs said. “Those experiences have adequately prepared me to make policy within the public arena. While my opponent has been an elected official for 12 years, he has had to rely on staff to guide him, as opposed to him guiding policy.”
Scruggs said she is running for office because “holding political office is merely the next logical step in my professional career as a public servant.”
Welch said he wants to continue to serve because “our county needs strong, proven leadership in a time of unprecedented fiscal and community challenges.”
To answer the question of what he hopes to accomplish, Welch said, “There are many areas that I will continue to address. Stabilizing the EMS (emergency medical services) system, and implementing fire based transport, modernizing our transportation system, and continuing our existing strategic initiative to streamline, consolidate and improve local government services while achieving better outcomes for the taxpayer’s dollar.”
Scruggs said she wants “to utilize my years of public service experience to work with community stakeholders to develop solutions that prepare this community to exist and prosper at a time when public resources are limited. I want to bring innovative solutions to very complex social and political issues.”
The candidates were asked to name the biggest challenge they expect to face as a county commissioner. Scruggs answered, “Opposition from those who have an investment in the status quo.” Welch said, “The biggest challenge is balancing increasing demands for services, in an era of declining revenues.”
The candidates were asked a hypothetical question: If you had the power to change one thing about county government, with nothing to stand in your way, what would you change.
Scruggs said she would change the entire organizational structure of county government.
“As a public manager, I have assessed the current organizational structure and believe that if there was a total realignment of job functions with individual’s requisite skill sets, the county could reduce its dependency on contractual services,” she said.
Welch said he would support an elected county mayor. He said the county’s Charter Review Commission reviewed the issue in 2010.
“Best case, an elected county mayor would bring more focus, action and accountability to county government,” he said when asked to explain his answer. “I have not always held this belief, but the extraordinary challenges before us require reexamination of our governance and service delivery models across the board.”
He pointed to St. Petersburg’s success under Mayor Rick Baker and Orange County’s successful county mayor model as “two examples of the potential benefit of an elected county or city executive.”
When asked what they would do if they lose the election, Scruggs said, “I will do what I have done for the past 30-plus years, that is to continue to serve my community in some capacity.” Welch said, “I’ll do what I’ve always done – work!”
Welch and his wife Donna have two children, Keonna and Kenya. He has lived in St. Petersburg for 47 years.
Scruggs is divorced and has one daughter, Shelynn M. Weston, 23, and one stepdaughter, Bernetta Weston-Davis, 32. She was born and raised in St. Petersburg and returned to Pinellas County 25 years ago.
Information for voters
The final day for registered Democrats to make their choice is Tuesday, Aug. 14. Early voting is scheduled from Aug. 4-11 at any Supervisor of Elections office. Mail ballots can be requested by calling 464-VOTE (8683) or visit www.votepinellas.com.