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Districts won't faze politics

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 1999

Talk about timing.

In November, Pinellas voters will decide whether to expand the County Commission so that four of seven members would run in districts instead of countywide. The idea is that district elections would provide more opportunities for people to serve in public office who aren't already well-known outside their neighborhoods and who can't raise big money to campaign from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

But the door already may be slammed shut on one of those opportunities.

Sixteen months before the 2000 general election, County Commissioner Sallie Parks has said she is not seeking re-election next year and has endorsed School Board member Susan Latvala as her successor. There is no bigger name in county politics than Latvala. Susan Latvala's husband, Jack, is an influential state senator. And he just happened to push through the bill that outlines the district plan and sets the referendum.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Latvala and Parks say they believe all county commissioners should continue to be elected countywide. They say their discussions about Parks' seat were not affected by the legislation and began months before it was signed into law.

But the line of succession is clearer here than it is in family businesses.

In much of Pinellas, legislative seats long have been filled by the retiring lawmaker and his friends' anointing someone and handing over the keys to the store. That has not been typical in elections for the School Board or the County Commission, which recently have featured spirited contests in the Republican primary, if not in the general election.

Parks said she had been looking around for a year and a half for her successor and that Latvala was her first choice.

"I wanted to make sure I had a good person lined up who knew the issues and was prepared to speak to them with a broad perspective of the county," Parks said.

Latvala said she can have a bigger impact on countywide issues as a member of the County Commission in areas such as juvenile crime and drug abuse. She is the chairwoman of Operation PAR, and an experience with drug abuse within her family has given her further motivation to focus on that issue.

But this is still a curious move by both Latvala and Parks.

Switching from the School Board to the County Commission is a lateral move. No one has moved from one to the other in at least 30 years. Latvala also would be leaving the School Board as it wades into historic decisions about what follows busing for desegregation purposes. Those decisions will have more sweeping impact than most of the issues the County Commission sees.

But last year's School Board elections did not turn out as Latvala had hoped. They did not provide her with enough votes to oust Superintendent Howard Hinesley, who still survives with what amounts to a one-vote advantage on a seven-member board. Hinesley ought to send Latvala a contribution for her County Commission race now that she is giving up the fight.

"I did see what I thought was a Fourth of July fireworks display, and it turned out to be in his front yard," joked Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis, who has met with Latvala several times.

Parks has anointed someone who may agree with her on many issues but who lacks her even temperament. Latvala has often contributed to the confrontational atmosphere at the School Board, which is still several notches above the St. Petersburg City Council in decorum.

The County Commission's collegiality does not make for great late-night television. But there are no power brokers like former Commissioner Chuck Rainey bullying colleagues into submission. Throwing Latvala into the mix could stir up the waters.

But Parks correctly suggested that Marquis operates differently from Hinesley. While Hinesley can pit board members against each other for his own purposes, Marquis carefully cultivates all of his commissioners.

There are other angles to the pre-emptive strike by Latvala and Parks.

Pending voter approval in November, the County Commission would expand from five to seven seats. Four commissioners would be elected in new districts, and three would be elected countywide. It is a sure bet that Parks and Latvala will live in the same north Pinellas district. But former Clearwater City Commissioner Karen Seel, who was appointed to the County Commission earlier this year by Gov. Jeb Bush, also could wind up living in the same district.

Would Latvala, who has won two countywide elections, run for the district seat and force Seel, who has not been on a ballot outside the city of Clearwater, to run countywide?

"I wouldn't do that to her," Latvala said. "Running countywide is not a problem for me."

But she also said she won't make a decision until voters decide the district issue in November.

Meanwhile, the open seat Latvala leaves behind at the School Board will not be filled by a partisan election. Voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution last year that requires all school board elections to be non-partisan. That should mean that political parties stay out of it.

"I wouldn't say that," said Pinellas Republican Chairman Paul Bedinghaus, recalling the controversy he stirred up last year by injecting party politics into non-partisan judicial races. "The non-partisan nature of it pertains to the candidate, not to outside parties. It doesn't mean that the parties won't have a favorite."

That is a curious interpretation of non-partisan elections.

Pinellas Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Whitman said if Republicans get involved in the School Board races, so will the Democrats. "It will be different with a non-partisan School Board race," she said, alluding to the six Republicans and one Democrat on the board now. "Because there won't be that big "R' behind the name. And we'll win on the issues."

The lesson here is voters can change government for the better by approving district elections for the County Commission and non-partisan elections for the School Board. But they can't change the behavior of politicians and political parties determined to hold onto their power.

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