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Sanderlin Center board fires a county commissioner's wife. But why?

ST. PETERSBURG –– The James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center board of trustees voted Monday to fire Donna Welch, the director of a faith-based literacy program and the wife of Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

But Donna Welch was fired after she was exonerated by an investigation looking into unauthorized payouts for unused vacation pay.

Earlier this month two Sanderlin Center employees — executive director Lounell Britt and operations chief Delphina Davis — stepped down after they and Welch received payouts for unused vacation hours totaling $16,000.

That's according to the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, which uses tax dollars to help support the Sanderlin Center's mission of offering education, health and job-related programs in Midtown.

The same controversy that engulfed the two Sanderlin Center leaders also resulted in Donna Welch being suspended for two weeks without pay earlier this month. The board then voted to fire her on June 15.

She appealed that decision. Then on Monday, seven of the nine trustees met. The majority voted to uphold her firing.

Donna Welch had spent more than a decade leading a literacy program that worked with more than 10 churches and taught several hundred children.

'"The decision to terminate Donna is shocking," her attorney, Shirin Vesely, said Tuesday. "The board investigation found no wrongdoing on her part. Their own board investigation recommended immediate reinstatement."

Vesely said she suspects St. Petersburg politics played a role in the board's decision.

One of the trustees is Deveron Gibbons, a former St. Petersburg mayoral candidate and political rival of Commissioner Ken Welch.

In the city's divisive 2017 mayoral contest, Gibbons backed Republican candidate and former Mayor Rick Baker. Ken Welch supported Democratic incumbent Rick Kriseman, who won a second term.In March, Welch said he would likely run for St. Petersburg mayor in 2021.

Gibbons denied that politics played any role in the board's vote. He also declined to say how he voted.

"People's families have nothing to do with this," Gibbons said. "I consider Ken Welch a friend. That is ridiculous."

The Sanderlin board, a private entity that receives public dollars, refused to disclose the vote total or how the board members voted.

Vacation pay became an issue when the board recently learned that the Sanderlin Center's policy was changed to allow employees to be paid for unused vacation time — without the approval of the board. That development was publicly revealed when JWB executive director Marcie Biddleman told the Tampa Bay Times about it on June 6.

Sanderlin board trustees Dianna King and Celeste Thomas conducted an investigation and interviewed Donna Welch, Britt, Davis and JWB accountant Laddavanh (Laddie) Phommaleuth, records show.

The trustees' findings were detailed in a 4-page report released June 18. In it, Britt and Davis pointed fingers at each other.

Britt said she did not change the policy. She also said Davis was responsible for payroll, records show.

Davis, though, said Britt was responsible for changing the policy.

Welch said once she learned the unused vacation she was paid for was not approved by the board, she notified Davis and asked for clarification from Britt over what she should do. Welch said she was told she did not need to submit a request. And the report said:

"Ms. Welch's claim to have had no involvement in or knowledge of the policy change is corroborated by" Phommaleuth and Davis."

The trustees discussed the report Monday, King said, and at least one board member shared verbal information about the incident to the other members.

But King declined to identify that board member or reveal that information. She also declined to say why the board decided to uphold Welch's termination.

Biddleman said the trustees' decision to fire Welch surprised her.

"It looked like all is well," she said of the findings in the report. "Their governing board should give an explanation."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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