Pinellas officials appoint Jewel White as new county attorney

Pinellas Assistant County Attorney Jewel White, 46, was appointed as County Attorney on Tuesday. [Handout from Jewel White]
Pinellas Assistant County Attorney Jewel White, 46, was appointed as County Attorney on Tuesday. [Handout from Jewel White]
Published July 18, 2017

CLEARWATER –– Pinellas' elected officials on Tuesday unanimously voted to appoint the chief assistant county attorney to the top legal job in county government.

The new Pinellas County Attorney is Jewel White, who replaces her former boss, ex-county attorney Jim Bennett. He retired in May after three decades of service.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas officials grill candidates vying to be county's next legal advisor

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri made it clear that he expects White to perform better than her predecessor.

"There are expectations of her," Gualtieri said. "The expectations are not the status quo."

The officials each ranked White ahead of three other finalists: Putnam County attorney Stacey Manning, 51; Port St. Lucie City Attorney, Reginald Osenton, 52; and attorney Philip Sherwin, 64, who has served Polk County, the city of Cape Coral and two private firms.

Eleven of the 12 elected officials ranked Sherwin as their second choice.

Gualtieri cautioned that critics might think the process was designed to result in the hiring of White. That's why, the sheriff said, he grilled White during last week's candidate interviews about how she would manage the office after working there for 20 years.

"Her answers put to rest my concerns," the sheriff said.

Added County Commissioner John Morroni: "Jewel is not going to get a honeymoon in this job. We do need changes in this department."

Osenton, the candidate from Port St. Lucie, emailed the committee Sunday to lodge that very complaint: "I came away from Clearwater on Tuesday with the 'gut feeling' that the committee intends to promote from within and hire the interim, Ms. White (even though the outside candidates were assured she would be given no preference)."

The committee dismissed that criticism and said White towered over the other candidates. White was the only finalist with experience running a large staff of government lawyers. The three other finalists said in the past they have managed a maximum of four to eight lawyers.

The Pinellas County Attorney's office has a staff of roughly 45, including 19 lawyers. The position pays $215,000 annually.

"If she would have applied anywhere in the state, she'd be a superstar candidate," said Pinellas Property Appraiser Mike Twitty.

White said she was grateful for the opportunity that elected officials expect her to elevate the county's legal department and believes her 21 years at the office will serve taxpayers well.

"I'm gratified the members of the oversight committee have confidence in me to lead the County Attorney's Office," White said in statement. I "look forward to meeting with the committee in the near future to discuss my plan for taking the office to the next level."

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The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee was created by voters in November, who approved a charter amendment to change the way the county picks it's top legal advisor. It is comprised of the county's seven commissioners and five constitutional officers — the sheriff, clerk of the court, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and tax collector.

The group publicly interviewed the four finalists on July 11. The committee had planned to narrow the field down on Tuesday before a second round of one-on-one interviews.

But since White was their top choice, the officials said they didn't need to do any more interviews.

"The fact that it was unanimous sends a message," County Commissioner Pat Gerard said.

However, two members missed last week's interviews: Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark and Tax Collector Charles Thomas. They voted for White anyway, citing their past experience working with her.

Commisssion chair Janet Long will negotiate White's contract and the committee will have to approve it. They also want White to report back in 90 days with changes that will be made to the county attorney's office.

Times staff writer Andrew Dunn contributed to this report.