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No surprise in county's new leader

Pinellas County commissioners chose Susan Latvala as their chairwoman for 2004 on Tuesday, and she quickly set as her top priority repairing relationships with Pinellas cities and towns.

"These are interesting times," Latvala said. "It's important we continue efforts to unite the county with the cities."

Latvala will assume the position on Jan. 1, when Commissioner Karen Seel resumes a regular seat on the seven-member board. Commissioner John Morroni will become vice chairman.

Latvala was a unanimous choice, as expected. In recent years, the commission has adopted an informal practice of rotating the chairmanship annually, elevating the vice chairman to chairman and then picking the next vice chairman from those who haven't had a turn.

First elected commissioner in 2000, Latvala expects the next year to be challenging. Relations between Pinellas cities and the county continue to sour. The most recent incident was the county's failure to gain support among city officials on a proposal to increase the gas tax to help pay for transportation projects.

Also, the county government is reeling from two recent public relations blowups. It failed to win over residents on the gas tax proposal. And hundreds of critics are voicing opposition to the county's tentative plans to expand St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Latvala said improving communication will be her second priority.

She expects the commission also will consider a proposal aimed at improving redevelopment opportunities countywide. Seel began the effort by leading two economic development summits attended by business leaders, government officials and residents. A report with recommendations is expected early next year.

Naming the vice chairman Tuesday could have turned political. Morroni and Commissioner Ken Welch both joined the commission in 2000, giving them equal seniority. Morroni, like Latvala, is one of five Republicans on the commission. Welch is one of two Democrats.

But Welch made it easy. He nominated Morroni.

"The commission has a lot more heavy issues out there than naming a vice chair," Welch said. "I thought it was the right thing to do."

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