Social issues dominate: Questions about poverty and job creation have dominated the race between incumbent Ken Welch and his challenger, community activist Sharon Russ.
By ROBERT FARLEY
Published October 26, 2004
Incumbent County Commissioner Ken Welch will take on community activist Sharon Russ in the race for a four-year seat representing District 7.
Russ, who said she wants to put a greater focus on social issues affecting the African-American community, is a single mother of three adult sons and a full-time student at St. Petersburg College.
"I got into this race because my opponent was not going to be challenged," Russ said. "I just didn't think anyone should waltz into office without being accountable to the people."
Welch listed government efficiency among his priorities. Last year, he said, the county eliminated 53 jobs (without layoffs), resulting in $3-million in savings annually.
As a member of the Homeless Policy Group, Welch said he's committed to the group's goal of developing a comprehensive plan to attack underlying problems such as mental health, substance abuse and affordable housing. And it will include a suggested funding source, perhaps a half-cent sales tax or a 1 percent restaurant tax, as in Miami.
"I look at it as a way to save money in the long term," Welch said, "instead of building more jail beds."
On the transportation front, Welch said he supports efforts to connect the Bayside Bridge to the interstate. But he said he's wary about the cost of a proposed light rail system.
"My question is, "Who is going to ride it?"' he said. "I think we should fix our bus system first. There needs to be a countywide (bus) system."
Russ said the county needs to do a better job creating jobs in the Midtown area.
She faulted WorkNet Pinellas, Pinellas County's welfare and job-placement agency, which last year had to return almost $785,000 in grant money to the state because the agency failed to spend it. Welch, who co-chairs WorkNet, should be held accountable for that, she said.
"We need jobs here," Russ said. "I see young people sitting around with nothing to do."
Russ said Welch is part of the "good ole boy network" and said he didn't play an active enough role to help quell Midtown disturbances last May.
Welch said he stood beside St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker before television cameras and spoke to the African-American community, urging members not to destroy their own neighborhoods over perceived injustices.
Russ said Welch should have been more visible in the community.
"I would have been out more talking to the people," Russ said. "I would have tried to bring the people together to make sure this repetition of violence didn't come back to this community."
Russ, who has switched political parties several times, said she settled on the Republican Party because she believes social programs like welfare have created a cycle of poverty in the African-American community. She preaches a message of personal responsibility.
"The problem is that the people speaking for the community are blaming the school district or the police department for the conditions here," she said. "It is time that we, as black people, start to take some responsibility for our lives."
She proposes town hall meetings on crime and poverty issues.
County Commission District 7 is a single-member district that includes Kenneth City, South Pasadena, Gulfport and the south half of St. Petersburg. The commissioner is part of a seven-member body that oversees a $1.6-billion budget and sets policy. Commissioners serve four-year terms and earn $84,242 a year.
SHARON RUSS, 44, is a full-time student at St. Petersburg College, where she is studying to become a teacher. Russ moved from Tallahassee to St. Petersburg 15 years ago. A longtime secretary, she returned to school in 1999. She served on the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) police advisory group and the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association. She is a single mother of three grown sons. She lives with her son. ASSETS: none. LIABILITIES: none. SOURCE OF INCOME: none.
KEN WELCH, 40, has been a county commissioner for four years. A St. Petersburg native, he was a senior accountant at Florida Power/Progress Energy for 15 years. He serves on the Juvenile Welfare Board's board of directors and is vice chairman of the county's work force development agency, WorkNet Pinellas. He served on the St. Petersburg College board of trustees and the St. Petersburg YMCA board of directors. Welch earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of South Florida and a master's degree in finance from Florida A&M University. He is married and has two daughters, ages 11 and 2. ASSETS: home, cash and securities. LIABILITIES: home mortgage, home equity loan, auto loans. SOURCE OF INCOME: Pinellas County and Welch Accounting, the family business.