It’s official: Long-time county commissioner retiring early

Chris Latvala qualified without opposition for the District 5 Pinellas County commission seat held for more than 20 years by Karen Seel, who decided not to run after a new state law forced her to campaign two years early.

CLEARWATER — The qualifying period for the August primary elections ended June 17 and several candidates were elected without a challenge, including one that will take the place of a long-term Pinellas County commissioner who decided to give up her seat without a fight.

Incumbent commissioners that won without opposition were Republican Kathleen Peters, who represents single-member District 6, and Democrat Rene Flowers, who represents single-member District 7. They will become automatically elected at the Nov. 8 general election.

In addition, a newcomer to county government, Republican Chris Latvala, who currently represents District 57 in the Florida House of Representatives, was the only one that qualified in the race for Pinellas County commissioner District 5. Due to term limits, Latvala has to give up his job in Tallahassee in November. He also will be automatically elected on Nov. 8.

It was somewhat unexpected to find that the name most everyone had assumed would be associated with District 5, a name that had appeared without opposition many times in two decades of past elections, was absent when the qualifying period ended. Long-term commissioner Karen Williams Seel has decided to throw in the towel.

Seel, who also is a Republican, had already announced her intentions to retire in 2024 when she was scheduled to run for re-election, but due to what many consider as political maneuvering her plans were foiled.

Not only is she being forced into retirement, she’s being forced to leave office two years early.

“It’s been an honor and privilege to have served the citizens of Pinellas County for 23 years,” Seel said in a written statement to Tampa Bay Newspapers. “While I was planning to retire in 2024, the State Legislature passed a law that requires that Rene Flowers and I must run for re-election this year. The law only pertains to Pinellas County and was politically motivated. As much as I enjoy serving, I decided to retire.”

The law Seel referred to is Senate Bill 524. It applies to charter counties with single member districts and no term limits. Pinellas is the only county in the state that fits the description. Other counties are exempt due to exceptions. The law requires all commissioners that represent single districts to run for re-election following redistricting.

Latvala had previously announced he would run for Seel’s seat in 2024. The new law allows him to run two years sooner. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Latvala has denied any involvement the bill.

The other candidates

Two incumbent commissioners will face competition in the Aug. 23 primary elections, including Republican Dave Eggers, of Dunedin, who has represented the residents in single-member District 4 since 2014. The District 4 seat had already been scheduled for re-election. He will face fellow Republican Heather Aynne Vernillo, owner operator of Vernillo Health & Wellness in Palm Harbor.

The District 4 contest is a Universal Primary. Both qualified candidates are registered with the same political party. According to the Supervisor of Elections’ office, all voters in the district are eligible to vote regardless of political affiliation. The candidate with the most votes will win without having to run in the general election.

Two Republicans qualified to run for a chance to compete against incumbent Pat Gerard in the Nov. 8 general election. Gerard, a Democrat from Largo, has served the residents in the at-large District 2 since 2014.

Debbie Buschman, of Palm Harbor, the Lunch Pals coordinator at Pinellas County Schools, and Brian Scott, of Largo, president of Escot Bus Lines, will be on the ballot for the Aug. 23 Republican Primary. Florida is a closed primary state. Only voters registered with a political party can cast a ballot in that party’s primary election.

Nonpartisan elections

All registered voters can cast a ballot in nonpartisan elections, including those for school board and special districts. Candidates have to garner 50% plus one vote to win. Otherwise, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a runoff during the general election.

School Board races

Incumbent School Board member Lisa Cane of Palm Harbor will have two challengers in her race to keep her at-large District 2 seat. Cane was first elected to the school board in 2019 and is currently the vice-chairperson.

Her opponents are Brad S. DeCorte of Palm Harbor, who has been teaching English at Tarpon Springs Middle School for 22 years, and Bronson Oudshoff of Clearwater, clinical research operations manager for an ophthalmology practice.

The incumbent for the at-large District 3 seat, Nicole Carr, is not seeking re-election. Three candidates have qualified to run for her seat, including Keesha Benson of St. Petersburg, an educator and community advocate; Dawn Peters, of St. Petersburg, president of a volunteer group serving veterans and a certified personal trainer and nutritionist; and Carl "Z" Zimmermann of Palm Harbor, a journalism teacher with 30 years of experience in Pinellas County.

The incumbent for the single-member District 6 seat, Bill Dudley, also chose not to run for re-election. Brian M. Martin of St. Petersburg, a small business owner with experience in the water and wastewater treatment industry; Stephanie Meyer of St. Petersburg, a local middle school social studies teacher and college professor; and Kimberly Works of Pinellas Park, a Medicare case manager at United Healthcare have qualified to run for his seat.

In the race for the single-member District 7 seat, incumbent Caprice Edmond, of St. Petersburg, who has held the office since 2020, will be challenged by Maria Di Fiore Solanki of St. Petersburg, a business owner that has worked with special needs and gifted children for nearly 20 years.

Only one nonpartisan special district race will appear on the August ballot. Tom McKone and Michael S. Peasley are vying for seat 4 on the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District. Candidates in other races qualified without opposition.

The deadline to register to vote in the August primary is Saturday, July 25. Mail ballots must be requested by 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13. Email MailBallot@VotePinellas.gov or call 727-464-VOTE (8683). For more information, visit VotePinellas.gov.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.