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Pinellas commission now full

Ken Welch, John Morroni and Bob Stewart win seats after fairly uneventful races.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


A year after voting to expand the Pinellas County Commission to seven members, voters rounded out the dais Tuesday by filling in the last three open seats.

In single-member District 7, Democrat Ken Welch defeated Republican Brent Fisher to become only the second African-American ever to be elected to the Pinellas County Commission. Fellow Democrat Calvin Harris was the first two years ago.

In single-member District 6, Republican and four-term legislator John Morroni thwarted a challenge by political newcomer Dave Buby, a Democrat who is a retired physician.

And incumbent Bob Stewart handily beat challenger Marcus Taylor, a write-in candidate who filed for the at-large District 3 seat July 21 and then disappeared from the campaign scene.

District 7, which includes the south half of St. Petersburg, Kenneth City, Gulfport and South Pasadena, was considered a minority-influenced district when it was drawn earlier this year. Nearly 20 percent of its registered voters are African-American.

But Welch, a Florida Power Corp. accountant, said he felt his message, rather than his race, put him over the top.

He also criticized what he called last-minute negative campaigning by his opponent.

"I think the citizens in this election looked at the content of my character and not the color of my skin," he said. "I think the voters are tired of negative politics. They responded to a positive campaign."

All three races were fairly uneventful, aside from the last-minute squabble in District 7.

Welch filed a complaint Friday with the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices Committee, criticizing a flier sent out by Fisher. The flier said Welch favored a tax increase "to benefit Florida Power" and that his campaign was "funded by Florida Power and special interest money."

The committee, which has no real punitive powers, ruled that Fisher's flier included false and misleading statements.

Fisher said Tuesday night that he was not sure whether Welch's complaint had any effect on the outcome. But he said he knew he faced an uphill battle from the beginning. "When I started talking to people, they said, "You're crazy. It's designed to be a Democratic seat and a minority seat and those are two things you're not.' At the same time, my commitment to the community has always been foremost," Fisher said.

District 6 covers the north half of St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Seminole and coastal communities from Redington Shores to St. Pete Beach. Morroni said he thought his legislative experience helped turn the race his way. Fixing Pinellas County's transportation ills and securing more state and federal money for the area are his top two priorities, Morroni said.

"I'm just ready to work hard for the constituents," he said. "I can't wait to see what I'm getting into."

Buby, who serves on several medical and social services boards, would not rule out another run for office. Morroni's term, as well as the District 4 seat, is up in two years.

"I'm just going to spend time doing volunteer work and seeing what happens in two years," Buby said. "I'll just have to wait and see."

Until now, the Pinellas County Commission consisted of five members who had to live in specific districts but were elected at-large, or by all the voters.

The switch to the new board began in November 1999, when voters narrowly approved expanding the commission and creating single-member districts. Under that plan, three of the commissioners would remain at-large while four would be elected only by the residents in the district they represent.

In the Sept. 5 primary, Karen Seel and Susan Latvala became the first two commissioners elected under the new system. Latvala was elected to represent single-member District 4, which includes Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, East Lake, Oldsmar, Dunedin, Safety Harbor and part of Clearwater.

Seel won the single-member District 5 seat, which covers most of Clearwater, Largo, Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores.

Also on the board are at-large commissioners Harris and Barbara Sheen Todd, who are up for re-election in 2002. Both Morroni's and Latvala's terms are two years to start with; they will revert to four-year terms after the 2002 elections.

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