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Panel has room for 2 new faces

Should the public defender and state attorney be added onto the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board? The board fears that doing so would shift its work away from its current focus on prevention and direct more money toward programs for juvenile offenders. While no one wants to see a retreat from prevention, the board's strategic plan and budget should be flexible enough to accommodate the new officers and good juvenile programs they might recommend.

The change, spearheaded by Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, was recently endorsed by the local legislative delegation and will be considered by lawmakers this session. It would keep the board at its current number (nine) by eliminating one of two juvenile judge seats _ only one judge attends meetings now anyway _ and one of five citizen seats appointed by the governor. The dilution of citizen representation is troubling, but lawmakers could remedy that by increasing the total number of seats to 10 or 11.

The officers would add expertise and continuity to the board, as well as firsthand knowledge about what children need, where the service gaps are and which programs are proving most successful in the community. At the same time, their presence is unlikely to harm the board's prevention focus _ unless, of course, their arguments are strong enough, in any given case, to persuade a majority of members that funding should be granted to programs that fall outside the board's prevention mission.

Both officers have some experience doing just that. Dillinger persuaded the board several years ago to save funding for Operation PAR, the only residential drug-treatment program for juveniles in five counties. State Attorney Bernie McCabe recently won a $150,000 grant from the board for an in-school program to work with students who have committed minor offenses on school grounds.

While Dillinger and McCabe have shown their commitment to prevention, they acknowledge that their definition is broader than the board's.

Prevention is key, and the board is right to devote the bulk of its funds to programs benefiting all children, not just juvenile delinquents. But with a dedicated source of money _ about $30-million in tax revenues every year _ and large reserves, it does not have to be too miserly in how it defines the word, awards money or offers seats at its table.