Advertisement
  1. Opinion

Editorial: Ken Welch's obvious conflict of interest

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Nov. 8, 2018

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Florida's unemployment rate was unchanged in October at 3.2 percent, according to numbers released Friday. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    The latest numbers were released Friday morning.
  2.  Jim Morin -- Morin Toons Syndicate
  3. Career Foreign Service officer George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, right, are sworn in to testify during the first public impeachment hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday Nov. 13, 2019, in Washington. JOSHUA ROBERTS  |  AP
    Here’s what readers had to say in Friday’s letters to the editor.
  4. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Visitors head to Florida's Old Capitol building on the first day of the annual sixty day session, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a joint session of the Florida Legislature Tuesday in Tallahassee.  SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Florida Legislature appears determined to pass legislation requiring parental consent.
  5. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  6. A house for rent in St. Petersburg.  [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times] SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN  |  Susan Taylor Martin
    The City Council has afforded renters more protections from discrimination and unjustified late fees.
  7. Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Here’s what readers had to say in Thursday’s letters to the editor.
  8. Leonard Pitts undefined
    No controversy ever ends quietly on social media, writes Leonard Pitts.
  9. In this Oct. 11, 2018, photo, rescue personnel perform a search in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach. GERALD HERBERT  |  AP
    While it is too late to stop global warming, we can prevent it from getting worse, two scientists write.
  10. Florida's toll roads
    Here’s what readers had to say in Wednesday’s letters to the editor.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement