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Seel, Pinellas commissioner who led U.S. 19 fixes, retires after 23 years – Tampa Bay Occasions

CLEARWATER — Karen Seel took a pissed off feeling out to the place the place U.S. 19 crosses Allen’s Creek.

A decade or so earlier, quickly after becoming a member of the Pinellas County Fee in 1999, Seel had taken on the problem of making an attempt to repair the notoriously harmful street — a activity many native politicians thought-about not possible. Seel had truly made progress, securing tax cash to rebuild elements of the street as overpasses. However folks had been sick of the development, and Seel needed to know what was taking so lengthy on the creek.

That a part of the street turned out to have a sinkhole below it. There was arsenic, too. And on the backside of all the pieces lay the bricks from the unique Twenties-era roadway, when Pinellas County’s inhabitants was 3% of in the present day’s.

Final month, Seel stood in her workplace, packing up for her impending retirement after almost a quarter-century on the fee. Requested about her finest day on the job, she informed this story, then went to seize a kind of bricks from a century in the past, now affixed with a plaque bearing her identify.

“Perhaps not the very best day,” she mentioned. “However possibly essentially the most illuminating.”

Seel is aware of about time. Persistence, too.

Earlier than her final day, Nov. 21, no energetic elected county official throughout Tampa Bay had held their job longer. She was by no means a firebrand, however those that know her say a quiet persistence drove a penchant for conducting rigorous analysis and bred fruitful political relationships. The work on U.S. 19, her signature accomplishment, has spanned her profession, and it continues in the present day.

“She was relentless,” mentioned Susan Latvala, a fellow Republican who served with Seel on the County Fee for 14 years.

Just like the roadway, she says she has served residents from all backgrounds and elements of the county. And she or he’s a type of conduit herself: from a extra genteel, small-town previous to the rancorous partisanship of governing in the present day.

A Pinellas unique

Seel, 64, is a first-generation Floridian born throughout a time of explosive progress in Pinellas County: Between 1950 and 1960, per census knowledge, the inhabitants greater than doubled, from about 160,000 to just about 375,000.

Her father, architect Don Williams, helped form the Pinellas of the late twentieth century, in his day job and in workplace, together with a four-term stint on the Clearwater Metropolis Fee. His work meant that the nuts-and-bolts of public service had been dinner-table dialog.

Karen’s dad was her superhero; he was additionally a public official whose successes and, extra pointedly, failures had been lined within the newspapers all through her adolescence. An effort to place Ruth Eckerd Corridor on the downtown waterfront didn’t get traction, and a proposal for a north-county College of South Florida campus died on the poll field. In 1974, he misplaced a mayoral bid to a member of the identical church, in a race that divided their congregation.

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Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel shares a flyer from her first run for office for the Clearwater City Commission from 1996 while recalling memories of her tenure as a public official.
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel shares a flyer from her first run for workplace for the Clearwater Metropolis Fee from 1996 whereas recalling reminiscences of her tenure as a public official. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I by no means thought I’d be in elected workplace,” Seel mentioned, “as a result of (I had) sufficient scars.” However she by no means shook her father’s imaginative and prescient for Pinellas County, and he or she got here to know that actual change occurs on a timeline of 25 or 50 years, far longer than most politicians get in workplace.

She grew up and left residence. She studied in Gainesville and Arizona and Mexico and England, labored in Saudi Arabia. She got here again within the Eighties as a result of she mentioned she couldn’t consider a greater place to boost a household (she and her husband have two sons). She labored for her dad’s architectural agency and have become president of the native Junior League. She had no designs on politics. After which, in 1994, Don Williams died.

One thing modified — sufficient that, when a seat on the Clearwater fee opened and somebody requested her if she’d run, she mentioned sure. Quickly she was telling reporters that town wanted higher collaboration: “Should you get sufficient folks within the room, you could find the very best answer.”

She received the three-way 1996 race handily, and for almost three years, she was within the thick of town’s redevelopment efforts forward of the brand new century. In 1999, a Pinellas commissioner was appointed to a state job, and Seel interviewed for his seat. On a January night time quickly after, Seel was at a pal’s home, speaking in regards to the future, when her older son known as with information: Gov. Jeb Bush was making an attempt to achieve her.

Queen of 19

A pair of headlines in what was then the St. Petersburg Occasions, printed every week aside within the fall of 1999, tells the story of Seel’s early years on the County Fee.

“Debate uncommon on Pinellas fee,” learn one.

“Fixing lethal U.S. 19 is unlikely,” went the opposite.

The fee was a match for Seel’s collaborative model — even earlier than her arrival, the board was voting unanimously 99% of the time. It was closely Republican however numerous for its time: three ladies plus the county’s first Black commissioner.

However in U.S. 19, Pinellas County had a damaged backbone that no one had discovered learn how to mend. It was each a freeway and an entry street. The addresses had been complicated, the turnoffs sudden, the left- and U-turns dangerous. Within the mid-to-late Nineteen Nineties, a dozen motorists and pedestrians a yr had been killed on the street’s Pinellas lanes. Locals dubbed one particularly harmful stretch “Dying Valley.” Individuals adorned their automobiles with bumper stickers studying, “Pray for Me, I Drive U.S. 19.”

Three activity forces over two years got here up principally empty. Seel had been on the County Fee lower than a yr when she was appointed to guide one more. Approaching a well-recognized downside with a well-recognized format didn’t encourage confidence. One Largo official predicted it could be “essentially the most ineffective physique ever set within the county.”

“It’s a must to strive, and that’s what we’re right here for,” Seel mentioned just lately, reflecting on that period. “I can’t contemplate the truth that it’s political suicide, as a result of it must be mounted.”

She believed she might pester lawmakers till they permitted cash for giant, long-term fixes, like overpasses. Within the meantime, the street wanted higher lighting, extra site visitors lights, adjustments to medians to cease drivers from slicing throughout the street.

Progress got here with its personal pitfalls. The Florida Division of Transportation dragged its toes. Residents grumbled in regards to the prolonged building. However Seel, not like the officers who’d tried earlier than her, received the cash she needed: Inside two years, tens of thousands and thousands of federal {dollars} flowed into Pinellas for U.S. 19 work. Sidewalks received prolonged. Overpasses bypassed former intersections. Dying Valley received a site visitors gentle.

And when NBC’s “Dateline” informed the world in 2005 that 19 “often is the most harmful street in America for pedestrians,” the commissioner’s work received a shout-out: “It’s getting higher, largely as a result of a county commissioner named Karen Seel determined she had seen sufficient white crosses.” The newsmagazine gave Seel credit score for pulling in $350 million for the street.

“You’ve actually received to have an extended view” with such tasks, mentioned Whit Blanton, the director of the county planning group, Ahead Pinellas. ” You’ve received to know what you’ve received to do to be tenacious. And it’s not very attractive.”

Seel’s work earned her a nickname: Queen of 19.

With extra overpasses nonetheless to be constructed, the work will outlive her reign. Her dad had been proper: It takes a long time to get stuff accomplished. On the finish of a profession notable for its longevity, Seel’s defining challenge will outlast even her.

Pictures chronicle Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel’s family and professional life on a desk at her office.
Footage chronicle Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel’s household {and professional} life on a desk at her workplace. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

‘There wasn’t any working away’

Away from the freeway, Seel has stayed each busy and, typically, below the radar. She’s helped push the fee to fund extra well being and human providers tasks, together with emergency housing for homeless households and placing nurses in each public faculty.

She’s additionally had her share of failures, some that also sting, just like the bold Pinellas Meeting, an effort to convey the county and its two dozen cities onto the identical web page for a long-term plan. It took on topics like annexation and emergency medical service agreements, among the largest drivers of unhealthy emotions between the cities and the county. It took 5 years, and it nearly labored, but it surely wanted unanimous approval. Twenty-two cities mentioned sure; two mentioned no.

Her standing as a public-but-not-controversial determine means she’s communicated with constituents much less via splashy headlines and extra via chats within the aisles at Publix.

“There wasn’t any working away from folks,” Seel’s son Scott, now 33, recalled, fascinated about how any grocery run inevitably concerned somebody pulling his mother apart. “I really feel like she all the time took the burden of people onto herself, as a result of she knew how she impacted them individually.”

The County Fee has talked itself into controversy sometimes, although. In 2010, the fee, pulled to the best by a couple of members, voted to take away fluoride from its consuming water provide, towards the recommendation of scientists, together with dentists. Seel voted towards the Republican majority. The debacle finally value the anti-fluoridators reelection, resulting in the fee’s first Democratic majority in 50 years. (Fluoride has since returned to the water provide.)

“She and I each remained average Republicans,” mentioned Susan Latvala, who voted with Seel on points like fluoride and an LGBT-rights ordinance. “That’s what’s occurred to our occasion — it’s gone too far to the best. However we stayed there.”

Seel fears political noise might swallow the fee once more. It has already difficult the tip of her tenure. After working unopposed in 2020, she was purported to be in workplace till 2024, after which she deliberate to retire. A change to election regulation moved up the cycle for 2 of the seven fee seats, and it opened the door for term-limited state Rep. Chris Latvala to run for the seat this yr.

Seel, a Republican, opted to step apart fairly than wage a main marketing campaign towards a fiery, right-wing candidate from a household of political energy brokers. Chris Latvala is the son of former state Sen. Jack Latvala, and the previous stepson of Susan Latvala, who was as soon as married to Jack.

The brand new fee already seems very completely different. On social media, Chris Latvala has picked fights together with his now fee colleagues and mocks Democrats whereas quipping about state politics.. Newcomer Brian Scott, who turned the fee pink on Election Day, is vital of presidency spending and has blasted the county’s 2020 seashore closures and masking insurance policies to stem the unfold of COVID-19.

“I’m so unhappy” in regards to the political surroundings, Seel mentioned just lately. “This isn’t the America that I aspire for, that I assumed we had.”

A part of her desires to remain. She started her first interview for this story by noting she hadn’t modified the world, one thing which will have dissatisfied her youthful self. However one other half is at peace along with her time on the fee.

Karen Seel's favorite photo of herself at work is this 1998 snapshot published in the St. Petersburg Times. Seel was a Clearwater city commissioner at the time.
Karen Seel’s favourite photograph of herself at work is that this 1998 snapshot revealed within the St. Petersburg Occasions. Seel was a Clearwater metropolis commissioner on the time. [ CLIFFORD, DOUGLAS R. | Tampa Bay Times ]

In her workplace, she picked via greater than 20 years of reminiscences. She mentioned she would preserve what felt vital: that previous brick, a painted flamingo, a shovel from the groundbreaking of what’s now the Duke Vitality Path, one other challenge she backed. She was on the lookout for one image specifically, her favourite, one which ran within the newspaper a very long time in the past.

Right here it was. From the St. Petersburg Occasions, Dec. 11, 1998. Virtually the start of her political profession. Her hair is in a wavy blonde bob, her mouth making its solution to a smile. Her head tilts upward. She loves it, she mentioned, as a result of it strikes her as aspirational. She was wanting on the future.

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