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Susan Latvala leaves local government after 22 years of issues, controversy

CLEARWATER

For one of the last times, Susan Latvala took in the view from her fifth-floor office in the Pinellas County Courthouse.

The desk that former County Commissioner Sallie Parks left for her had already been moved to her Palm Harbor home. But Latvala had yet to pack up other mementos, including a framed news story reporting her election to the commission in 2000.

After 22 years in public office — eight on the School Board and 14 on the County Commission — the self-described "country girl" from Kentucky who helped make "Latvala" one of the biggest names in Pinellas County politics is moving into private life after deciding not to run for re-election. Her last official day is Monday.

"I've learned a lot about myself," Latvala, 65, said in an interview last week, "and I've learned a lot about my community."

A Republican, she helped usher out busing in Pinellas schools. Her tenure on the commission saw record property values, the Great Recession and now a glimmer of economic recovery. She has raised children, divorced one of the most powerful men in the county and got engaged.

Latvala was an office manager in her husband Jack's direct mail business when School Board member and friend Ron Walker suggested she run for his seat when he stepped aside. Her two sons were in public school and she was already an active volunteer with a passion for exceptional student education.

She won in 1992. Two years later, Jack Latvala was elected to the state Senate.

In her second term, Susan Latvala and her fellow School Board members ignited a fire storm by asking a federal judge to release the district from a 1971 desegregation order requiring cross-county busing to meet strict racial ratios. The district had spent almost two years negotiating with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to relax the requirements.

After much public outcry, the board reached a court-approved settlement that phased out busing with a system that let families select schools under a "controlled choice" plan.

"I knew quite well that we did not discriminate," Latvala said. "We worked hard to make sure every child got the quality and level of education they needed, yet we had to jump through hoops every year. It was the right thing to do."

Latvala said she is most proud of the board's approval in 1999 of a policy to protect gay and lesbian students and staffers from harassment on campuses. The vote came after vitriolic criticism from opponents during one of the most difficult public meetings of her career.

"We were threatened," she recalled. "It was very, very ugly. But we had to do something."

When Latvala was elected to the commission's District 4 seat in north county, she became the county's representative on Tampa Bay Water, a consortium of six local governments created to end the region's bitter water wars. She never left, helping to steer the utility as it dealt with costly problems that plagued its desalination plant and reservoir, both in Hillsborough County.

Latvala said the focus on those issues overshadowed the agency's benefit to the region.

Meanwhile, she grappled with the demands of public life as her husband rose in the ranks.

"Being seen as this power couple was taxing at times for Susan," said Jane Gallucci, a friend who served with Latvala on the School Board. "And because Jack was the state senator I think a lot of times it was implied that she was going to do what Jack said, and it was quite the opposite."

Latvala recalled being "furious," for example, when her husband supported a school voucher bill. The couple divorced in 2006.

One of the most difficult chapters in her political career came a year later, after the commission voted to pay $250,000 for a piece of property on Brooker Creek owned by then-property appraiser Jim Smith. It was nearly quadruple the value assigned the land for tax purposes by Smith's own office. A grand jury indicted no one, but county leaders who handled the deal, including County Administrator Steve Spratt and County Attorney Susan Churuti, were faulted.

Latvala defended Churuti at the time, saying she perhaps could have spoken up more about the deal, but had done nothing wrong. She now regrets voting to fire her and says the commission was unfairly painted with the broad brush of scandal after approving a staff recommendation to buy the land to provide access to the creek.

Later, fueled in part by her son's struggles with drugs years earlier, Latvala put together a task force to craft an ordinance regulating pain clinics and banning new ones.

"That has literally saved lives in Pinellas County," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat who has served with Latvala since 2000.

Over the years, some criticized Latvala as too quick to give developers what they wanted. She said she favored property rights over not-in-my-backyard objections, but voted against as many development proposals as she supported.

Clearwater land use attorney Ed Armstrong was on the losing end of many those votes. He said Latvala made decisions based on the facts, not emotion. He acknowledged some found her direct style overly harsh.

"She is a woman of great conviction, so in stating her viewpoint some people might perceive that as having a hard edge, but with her friends in her private life she is one of the kindest, most supportive, emotionally generous people you'll ever meet," Armstrong said.

During the recession, the county had to cut millions from the budget and hundreds of positions. Latvala's eyes brimmed with tears as she recalled emotional briefings with then-county administrator Fred Marquis about who would lose their jobs.

"It was probably the hardest thing I had to do, and it sent me to counseling," she said. "We learned a lot about how to operate more efficiently."

Latvala said she has no plans to run for higher office. She might do some consulting work and will stay involved as a volunteer. She got engaged last December to longtime partner Jay Powers, the general manager for the Home Port and Pryor marinas in Palm Harbor. Her first grandchild, a girl, was born this year.

"My children paid a huge price for me being in public office," she said. "I want to spend time with them when I want to, not when I can work it into my schedule between meetings."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Susan Latvala on the record

On criticism she drew for telling the Times editorial board in 1996 that it was "past time" for longtime superintendent Howard Hinesley to go:

"It taught me the lesson of how to deal with press better, to realize that every single word that comes out of your mouth is a record."

On questions about her friendly interactions with the Church of Scientology:

"They vote, they have rights and they pay taxes like everybody else. I'm treating them like I do all citizens and taxpayers. I know the same things that everybody else does that the (Tampa Bay) Times has reported. I also know a lot of people who are good citizens."

On the defeat of Greenlight Pinellas, the transit tax referendum she championed:

"We still have the same transportation challenges in this region. We have to go back to square one and figure out how to come back with a plan that is more acceptable to the public."

On criticism that she too often sided with developers in land use decisions:

"I have deep respect for people's personal property rights. To some that may look like I favor developers. I favor the right of someone to develop their property in a manner that's in alignment with our comprehensive plan."

Susan Latvala leaves local government after 22 years of issues, controversy 11/15/14 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2014 9:12pm]
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