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Ken Welch's bid to lead Juvenile Welfare Board is complicated

When Marcie Biddleman applied to lead the Juvenile Welfare Board, she topped her list of professional references with the name of a well-known elected official who could vouch for her.

To the surprise of many, he is now her competitor.

A little after noon Friday, County Commission Chairman Ken Welch, Pinellas County's most prominent Democrat, submitted his application to become the JWB's new executive director, potentially putting his seat on the commission in play and raising a host of questions about how the agency's board will handle such a high-profile applicant.

By 1:45 p.m. Friday, a few hours short of the deadline, the JWB had received 99 applications for the position, which currently pays $158,6000 a year to oversee a staff of 60 people and a budget of more than $60 million.

An earlier deadline in January had been extended because board members wanted more options, but they have already selected eight people from the first round whose applications merit a second look.

Among the names on the short list are Bobbi Davis, a former employee of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County; Duggan Cooley, president of the United Way of Pasco County; and Biddleman, the JWB's chief operating officer.

Welch, who has represented District 7 in south Pinellas for the past 12 years and cited a lawsuit over term limits as a major factor in his decision to apply, is likely to be a top contender. He served on the agency's board for six years and has ties to many of its current members.

But he's also a complicated candidate.

To prevent his majority Democratic, heavily African-American district from being represented by appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Welch has said he would take the job if he can finish this year on the commission. But the agency's current director, Gay Lancaster, said Friday that her retirement date of June 30 is firm and set by the state.

If the board goes with Welch, it may have to name an interim director to lead it for six months. It must also decide whether naming one of the most well-known politicians in the county to a post that has typically been apolitical would benefit the agency.

Another factor board members may have to consider is that Welch's wife, Donna, works for the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center — an organization that receives funding from the JWB.

Welch already has one board member's support.

"I'd vote for him," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association. He met Welch during his first run for the commission and the two have talked on-and-off ever since.

"We've got staff that are more than capable of stepping into that position," he said of the possible leaderless period between Lancaster's departure and a new director's arrival. "Anybody who gets this guy is better off."

Most board remembers either refused to discuss potential candidates or did not respond to requests for comment. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, a member of the board's search committee, said it was too early to "prejudge" any of the applicants.

"My main concern is finding somebody who can manage the agency and lead it through the referendum in 2016," he said, referring to a required countywide vote that will determine whether the JWB continues to exist.

In Welch's district, buzz about who might run to replace him immediately followed his announcement. "There's going to be a lot of intrigue over which Democrats are going to run in that seat. It certainly is going to make things very interesting for 2014," said Darden Rice. The news about Welch would have no bearing on her decision to run for a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council this year, she said.

But it's likely to generate other potential candidates. Maria Scruggs, who lost to Welch in the 2012 Democratic primary and is a plaintiff in the term limits lawsuit, has said she would run again if he vacated the seat.

St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton, who lives in Welch's district, has three years left in his term, but he could cut it short to pursue a commission seat. The possibility "hadn't crossed my mind," he said Friday.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Ken Welch's bid to lead Juvenile Welfare Board is complicated 02/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 10:02pm]
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