It’s an obvious conflict of interest for any public official to lobby other officials on behalf of their spouse, particularly when taxpayer money is involved. Yet Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch is unrepentant and insists he has just been defending his wife who he believes has been unfairly treated. The county’s Juvenile Welfare Board should delay Thursday’s scheduled vote on a contract tied to Welch’s wife until there is more clarity about how public money has been spent on a reading program she oversaw and the clear conflicts of interest.
For more than a decade, Donna Welch ran a faith-based reading program out of the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center in south St. Petersburg. The program is funded by a $600,000 tax-funded grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board, which has its own property tax rate. Donna Welch was fired by the Sanderlin board in June amid a scandal over payouts for unused vacation time, although an investigation found someone else initiated the policy change. Sanderlin officials have indicated she was fired “for cause” but have not publicly provided specifics.
The Juvenile Welfare Board then asked the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg to take over the reading program. The YMCA hired Donna Welch to keep running it, but that arrangement apparently soured. The Tampa Bay Times’ Mark Puente reported Ken Welch got involved when another group, R’Club Child Care, sought to take over the program from the YMCA — and promised to hire his wife to run it. Ken Welch called or met with at least seven juvenile board members, urging them to award the reading program to the R’Club, which has the backing of some pastors who want the program to stay in south St. Petersburg. He also spoke about the matter at a July Juvenile Welfare Board meeting.
Ken Welch says he did not hide that he was keeping board members apprised of the circumstances surrounding his wife’s ouster at Sanderlin and the status of the reading program. He says the reading program has nothing to do with county business, and he claims he showed proper restraint in staying on the sidelines — until Donna Welch’s treatment became so egregious that he had to speak up. But his lobbying, both in public and in private conversations, is inappropriate at any stage. As County Commission chairman, Welch wields influence with other public officials — no matter the topic. Ignoring that fact so he could speak up for his wife was an abuse of his position.
The Juvenile Welfare Board is scheduled to meet Thursday to decide where to house the reading program in the future. That decision should be delayed until there is more clarity about Donna Welch’s termination at Sanderlin, a full accounting of how public money has been spent on the reading program, the program’s effectiveness and the integrity in how a new contract is being awarded. Meanwhile, Ken Welch should recognize that he does not shed his role as a powerful elected official when he lobbies for his wife in situations involving taxpayer money.
Correction: An earlier web version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the Pinellas County Commission approves the Juvenile Welfare Board’s annual budget. The editorial has been updated to correct that error.