ST. PETERSBURG — Three months after easily winning re-election to the Pinellas County Commission, positioning him to run for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2017, Ken Welch is in the job market.
The Democrat, who has spent the past 12 years on the commission and recently became its chairman, has been talking to members of the Juvenile Welfare Board about applying to become its next executive director. On Thursday, Welch said he was putting the finishing touches on his resume and would submit it by the agency's deadline today. If he gets the job, Welch would vacate his seat on the commission sometime in the next year, creating an opening in his south Pinellas district.
Ask any political observer what they expected the next few years would hold for Welch and they would have charted the same course: another four years on the commission, followed by a run for mayor of St. Petersburg — an ambition he has openly acknowledged. Many expected him to make a bid for that office in 2013 and were surprised last year when he announced he would seek another commission term.
No one anticipated that a group of Pinellas residents would sue Welch and three of his fellow commissioners in June, challenging their right to remain in office for more than eight consecutive years. If the plaintiffs win (the suit is still in circuit court, waiting to be heard), the four commissioners could be kicked out of office or barred from running again.
The uncertainty proved too much for Welch, who said he would prefer to decide his own future rather than have a judge dictate it.
"As a father and husband, I'm not going to wait a year and a half and see what happens," he said. "I'm going to act now."
Seeing the case through could be costly for him and the other commissioners. Welch said he has already spent $2,000 on his defense.
The Juvenile Welfare Board oversees and funds a variety of groups that help needy children in Pinellas. Welch said the job is attractive because it deals with many of the same issues he was drawn to during his years on the commission, such as homelessness and families in poverty.
Although its current director, Gay Lancaster, is retiring and the agency is looking for her replacement to begin in June, Welch said that if he were offered the job, he would negotiate for a January 2014 start date.
Abandoning the commission earlier would create an opening for Republican Gov. Rick Scott to fill his seat with an appointee, a prospect Welch likely would not relish for his heavily Democratic district. If Welch leaves next year, Scott could name an interim appointee, but the seat would be up for election in November 2014.
In losing Welch, the commission would not simply be down a Democrat. He is the only African-American board member, the most vocal advocate for the county's homeless population and a major proponent of increased funding for public transportation, including a light rail system connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
One question for the Juvenile Welfare Board is how its members would feel about hiring an executive director who is an all-but-declared mayoral candidate in four years.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, a member of the JWB's board who said Welch approached him months ago about applying, said the agency is looking for someone with political acumen. For the first time in its history, the JWB will be subject to a voter referendum in 2016, and it needs a director who can sell the behind-the-scenes agency to taxpayers, he said.
"The problem we've had is we have intentionally tried to stay under the radar, and by doing so most people don't know who we are," Dillinger said. "Now we've got to do the opposite."
Welch has several ties to the board, including serving on it alongside Dillinger for years. His wife, Donna, used to work for Pinellas Core Management Services, a group the board created to monitor counseling and tutoring programs. It shuttered in 2009 after an audit found it was in complete financial disarray.
If he successfully jumps to the JWB, Welch would be giving up the visibility of a commission post, though he said he is not worried that the move could affect his chances of winning a mayoral race.
"I think a 25-year record of service in the community doesn't evaporate overnight," he said.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, whose St. Petersburg district overlaps with Welch's commission district, said the election of two new Democratic commissioners to the Republican-dominated board in November had given Welch the freedom to consider other options. A move to the JWB would be natural transition, he said.
"He has served this community well and served it for a long time, and I see it as being an extension of what's at his core," Rouson said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.