Saturday, January 20, 2018
Editorials

Competence comes first for JWB

It looks like the fix could be in for Pinellas County Commission chairman Ken Welch to become the next executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board. Welch applied for the job on the last day of the application period, which already had been extended. But elected officials who serve on the JWB board have an obligation to pick the best person for the job, not the most politically connected or the most familiar name.

Welch's timing could be better. The county's most prominent elected Democrat just won re-election to a four-year term in November. Voters also replaced two conservative incumbent Republicans on the commission with more mainstream Democrats. The commission already has voted to resume adding fluoride to the drinking water, and it is poised to tackle other long-range issues such as a transit referendum, the future of EMS and the Tampa Bay Rays stadium controversy with renewed energy and pragmatism. Welch will have to resign from the commission if he gets the JWB job, and don't expect Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a temporary replacement with similar sensibilities.

It is understandable that Welch has concerns about a pending lawsuit over commission term limits. If the plaintiffs win and the courts impose term limits, he and three other commissioners could be forced out of office and barred from seeking their seats. But that lawsuit was first filed in June, and it was no secret before the November election that the current JWB executive director, Gay Lancaster, would be retiring this year. If Welch was that concerned about the lawsuit or interested in this job, perhaps he should not have run for re-election.

To be sure, the ground has shifted on the term limits issue. A judge required changes to the lawsuit in November, it was refiled in January and Welch's political opponents could appeal if they lose in circuit court. Welch says he was encouraged by JWB board members to apply for the job, and those overtures increased after the initial application period produced relatively few qualified applicants.

The Juvenile Welfare Board needs to continue to have a respected executive director as it faces a 2016 voter referendum. It was created in the 1940s to support children's programs, and it has the authority to raise money through a modest property tax. The low-profile agency serves a vital public purpose, and voters will have to be reminded of its value.

But the executive director of the JWB should not be the point person of such a campaign effort. The county administrator is not expected to sell a transit tax, and the school superintendent is not expected to sell the property tax for education enhancements. Those tasks are best left to elected public officials and community leaders. The JWB has been a nonpartisan operation with broad support, and its next executive director should embrace that spirit.

Welch says he wants no special treatment and looks forward to the vetting process. The JWB board should evaluate the finalists for executive director based on their competence and experience, not on their political connections. Welch may be the best choice. But what is best for Ken Welch may not be best for the Juvenile Welfare Board or the constituents he was just re-elected to represent.

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