Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch took himself out of the running to be the next executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board on Tuesday, saying he was sparing the agency a political fight with Tallahassee.
Welch, who has served on the commission for 12 years, applied for the job earlier this month, propelled by uncertainty surrounding the outcome of a term limits lawsuit against him and three other commissioners. Knowing that the lawsuit could force him out of office, Welch decided to try for a new job and an early exit in January 2014.
It was a bold move for a politician who shuns risk, and it did not go as planned.
On Tuesday, Welch sent the board a statement saying he was withdrawing his application.
"It has become obvious that, in the minds of some, my political persona overshadows all other aspects of my business, managerial and professional experience," he wrote, singling out an editorial that ran in the Tampa Bay Times. The editorial questioned whether the board would be swayed by Welch's prominence and hand him the job without seriously considering other applicants.
In an interview on Tuesday, Welch said he had received calls from Tallahassee objecting to him making a bid for the job. Claiming he did not want to "fan the flames," he refused to say whether the political pressure came from state elected officials, the governor or both.
These "party loyalists," as he called his opponents, did not like the idea of a high-profile Democrat leading the agency, he said, adding that some Republicans believe he played a back-room role in getting two Democrats elected to the commission in November and resent him for it.
"We haven't weighed in on this appointment," said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott. "We haven't told anyone to withdraw their name or application."
Opposition to Welch taking the JWB post materialized before he even submitted his resume and cover letter to the search committee. Hearing that Welch might apply, state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican, said he called several JWB board members to warn them it was a bad idea. Last Friday, he said, he talked directly to Welch to make his opinion clear.
"I think Ken Welch is a very competent public official," Latvala said. "I just told him I thought there were some unfortunate consequences if he were to get that job."
As Latvala sees it, if Welch, the county's most prominent Democrat, were given the job and granted the delayed start date he requested, it would thrust a nonpartisan agency focused on improving the lives of poor children and families into the political fray. The fact that Welch plans to run for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2017 only made the political tension worse, Latvala said. "I thought this appointment and the fact that he could be running for office could potentially hurt JWB," he said.
Though Welch's appointment was not a foregone conclusion, he was among 11 semifinalists the board had selected to begin interviewing for the job. But by last weekend, some board members said they began to hear that he might bow out, said Dr. Jim Sewell, who is leading the search committee.
"I think all of us were a little bit concerned about this," he said.
Other board members were surprised.
"I'll never understand the political thing," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association and a JWB board member. "I just thought: Here's a quality guy who's on the market, and why else not be able to give him a shot as well as everybody else?"
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.