Annexation battle changing
It's becoming more of a countywide issue. A new joint task force is expected to meet in the new year - but without a staunch ally.
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007
Commissioner Ken Welch has been one of Lealman's staunchest allies in its long and solitary battle against annexation.
[Lara Cerri | Times]
For years, activists in this unincorporated area have been the lone voices crying in the wilderness against annexation.
That has changed in recent weeks as St. Petersburg has moved to annex part of Tierra Verde and as Palm Harbor activists have indicated they would like to become a city to avoid the possibility of losing their community identity to annexation.
Now others in unincorporated Pinellas finally understand what Lealman antiannexation leaders have long maintained: Annexation is not a Lealman issue. It's a countywide issue.
This realization that all of unincorporated Pinellas has a stake in annexation comes at a time when the Pinellas Planning Council and the Pinellas County Commission have formed a joint task force to try to establish annexation zones for each city and, perhaps, annexation-free zones to placate the antiannexationists. The task force is expected to begin meeting in the new year.
But missing from that task force is county Commissioner Ken Welch, who has been one of Lealman's staunchest allies in its long and solitary battle against annexation by St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Seminole.
Welch has been the point man who helped persuade his fellow county commissioners to understand the special issues Lealman faces and to consider its residents when deciding annexation and other issues. Welch most recently was chairman of a Legislature-appointed task force designed to come up with a way to fund fire service in the Lealman area in the event of annexation. Given Welch's history - he has also served on past annexation boundary task forces - it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would be a member of this new group, which could well develop the plan that will control all future Pinellas annexation.
Instead, Welch ceded to Commissioners Karen Seel and Susan Latvala from North Pinellas and John Morroni from south Pinellas.
Welch said last week that his decision not to serve does not indicate he is "over" the issue of annexation. Nor, he said, does it indicate he is forsaking Lealman or the interests of antiannexationists elsewhere in the county.
Welch said the decision was, in part, an acknowledgement that annexation has truly become a countywide issue that others should help shape. Latvala and Seel have a bigger interest in the effects of annexation now that a portion of North Pinellas wants to incorporate. And Morroni, he said, represents not only a great chunk of Lealman but also Tierra Verde as well as Feather Sound and unincorporated Seminole, which both have contingents of antiannexationists.
"I guess folks sometimes forget John represents everything north of 54th (Avenue)," he said. That gives Morroni a vested interest in protecting constituents in Feather Sound and Tierra Verde as well as Lealman.
Besides, Welch said, any deal will have to come back before the County Commission for approval, so he is not completely out of the loop of influence.
Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association and a longstanding annexation opponent, was out of town when the commission appointed members to the annexation task force. He was surprised to hear Welch would not serve.
"Will he be missed? Will it make me feel a little less secure?" Neri asked. "Probably, because he's so familiar with the issue."
But, Neri said, Morroni is aware of the stakes and the feelings of antiannexationists.
"I don't think Lealman will get lost in the stampede," Neri said. "It's not a Lealman issue. It's never been a Lealman issue. ... It's a countywide issue, and some basic rules of conduct have to be created so we can all live in peace with each other."
And, Neri said, Welch will have a voice when any proposal comes before the County Commission.
Neri agreed with Welch that there is no rift between Lealman and the commissioner. It's just the opposite, he said. Most Lealman residents are aware that Welch has acted as a sort of guardian angel to the area.
"He's gone to bat. He's verbalized our concerns eloquently," Neri said. "And we're grateful for that."
That gratitude is obvious anytime Welch attends a meeting of the Lealman Community Association. Most members greet him with the respect and warmth reserved for idols. Some outsiders have even commented that no one ever would have expected Welch, a black man from St. Petersburg, to become the hero of a group of people who some regard as stereotypical racially biased poor whites.
Welch said he has had people comment on that apparent irony, but it's not something he sees as unusual. Even though Lealman makes up only 15 percent of Welch's district, doing his best for the residents is simply a "matter of the Golden Rule in treating people like people. ... Those are just fairness issues."
Neri said Lealman is not as prejudiced as some might think. For the most part, he said, Lealman residents look at performance and nothing else.
"When you elect a guy to office and you know he's trying to be fair, why wouldn't you like him? I don't care if he's purple," Neri said. "This is the peculiarity of Lealman. Lealman takes these representatives and adopts them. When he comes in here, he's one of us and the people convey that, I think."
Neri paused and added, "I hear people in other areas saying they wish they had Ken Welch on their side, except we're not giving him up."
[Last modified December 25, 2007, 21:13:34]
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