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Election 2004

For clerk hopefuls, fans could become foes after election

Whichever candidate replaces longtime clerk Karleen De Blaker may find their audit duties soon rub current supporters the wrong way.

Published October 22, 2004

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
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CLEARWATER - In between managing courthouse records and paying government bills, the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court has rankled public leaders as the county's auditor.

In recent years, auditors from the office have accused county officials of inflating the benefits paid from a sales tax, keeping poor records and violating competitive bidding rules. They even singled out a county commissioner for ringing up $900 in personal phone calls.

"I haven't worried too much about keeping them happy," said longtime clerk Karleen De Blaker, who retires at the end of this year.

Whichever candidate is elected on Nov. 2 to replace De Blaker must be prepared to get tough with some of the county's most important leaders. But Republican Ken Burke and Democrat Carolyn Wadlinger could find themselves in the awkward position of evaluating people who have helped their campaigns.

On a recent flier, Burke prominently featured three sitting county commissioners, all of them endorsing his campaign. And Wadlinger accepted a contribution from one commissioner.

Burke's flier quotes County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala and Commissioner Karen Seel as saying: "A job this important should be placed in the hands of a professional."

Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, pictured separately, asks voters to "join me in supporting Burke for Clerk!"

Burke said making some supporters uncomfortable comes with the job. He said commissioners set policy and are less likely to be the target of an audit. Any friction would more likely be with the county administrator and his staff, who carry out policy.

"They (commissioners) may react to criticism," Burke said. "But they would have to react by setting more stringent policies or by having a conference with the (county) administrator."

Burke compared his campaign to that of a judge.

"Most of their contributions come from law firms, but nobody is going to say (a) judge is going to be swayed by that," he said. "I think people recognize when a person is qualified for a post and want to support that person."

This year, Latvala served on a county charter review commission where she argued to reduce the clerk's authority overseeing audits. She proposed amending the charter so the clerk's responsibilities would be replaced by an auditing committee appointed by the clerk and the County Commission.

The group voted down the proposal. Latvala said she hasn't brought the subject up with Burke.

"I have never discussed that with him, or anything else about the role," she said. "I just know him as a person. His leadership will transfer well."

Roger Wilson, a member of the charter review commission and a contributor to Burke's campaign, also opposed reducing the clerk's independence.

Wilson, who served in the Florida Legislature from 1968 to 1976, said he would not want to be responsible for having weakened the clerk's watchdog role. He said Burke is capable of remaining professional with his campaign supporters.

"The person has to have a strong personality and a tremendous amount of discipline in a business-like manner," Wilson said. "We can be friends. We can eat lunch together. But that's not a distraction for what needs to be done."

Wadlinger, too, has accepted support from people she might audit. Commissioner Ken Welch contributed $50 to her campaign. She called Burke's endorsements on the flier "interesting."

"Certainly anybody has the right to do that," Wadlinger said. "Generally, the constitutional officers have not come out and endorsed other candidates that they are going to be working so closely with. I found it interesting. I don't know if it is necessarily an issue."

Wadlinger may lack Burke's level of local support, but she is not without political allies. She's relied on former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for advice and help with fundraising. Wadlinger headed up Reno's campaign for governor in Pinellas during 2002.

De Blaker said she made a practice of not seeking endorsements. "I always thought you could do as much harm to yourself as good by running around and getting endorsements," she said.

But De Blaker said she doesn't see endorsements as an impediment to scrutinizing county leaders.

"If you are asking can the clerk do an audit that would involve them, I would say if the clerk has the integrity, yeah, they could do one," De Blaker said. "I don't think I would have (accepted donations), because you are auditing somebody. It could be construed as too close a relationship."

Both Wadlinger and Burke said the audit process must continue to be independent. The two, who have accounting backgrounds and experience with audits, also pledged to communicate better with the county staff, commissioners and judges.

"You can't change the way you do an audit," Wadlinger said. "There are standard guidelines that you follow. But you can change the approach. You can change having a surprise audit. Sometimes, it's appropriate. But in general, we can have better communication."

Burke said he would hire an outside firm to audit the clerk's auditing department, as "good internal control."

"An audit is not to penalize," Burke said. "It's to help the entity present accurate financial information."

[Last modified October 22, 2004, 01:08:21]

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