Burke Tries for Clerk
A Seminole law firm administrator says he has better credentials to turn around the Pinellas County court clerk's office than his more recognizable primary foe.
By Francis X. Gilpin
He's the lower profile candidate running for a low-profile political office. He hasn't gotten face time on cable television or presided over a big Tampa Bay area city.
But Kenneth P. Burke says he is better qualified to be Pinellas County's next circuit court clerk than Clearwater Mayor Brian J. Aungst, his lone Republican primary opponent so far. The winner faces Democrat Carolyn "Carrie" Wadlinger Nov. 2, assuming all three qualify next month for the ballots.
"As I tell people, I've been preparing my whole adult life to be clerk of the court," says Burke, 44, of Largo. "This is just not a stepping stone to another position. This is just not 'let me look at the list of what's available and run.' "
As those remarks suggest, Burke is likely to turn up the temperature of the campaign before the Aug. 31 GOP primary election. He almost has to.
Aungst has raised $83,718, close to three times as much cash as Burke, according to the latest finance reports of the candidates. The Clearwater mayor since 1999, Aungst has also lined up an impressive list of endorsements, from U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, to Edward Droste, co-founder of the Hooters restaurant chain.
Though largely ministerial, the clerk's job of paying county bills, recording deeds, keeping commission meeting minutes and auditing local agencies could attract a bit more attention than usual during the 2004 election year.
Voters on both sides of the bay will choose replacements for the retiring Karleen F. DeBlaker in Pinellas and Richard Ake in Hillsborough. A raft of candidates are vying to succeed them and some have promised major reforms at the clerk's offices, which are renown for inattention to customer service and slowness to upgrade recordkeeping technology.
Burke, a certified public accountant who manages a Seminole law firm that has an affiliated real estate title company, is among the crowd that sees room for improvement.
"I know the problems throughout the years," says Burke, whose work at DeLoach & Hofstra PA requires him to interact with DeBlaker's office on a regular basis. "When you hear the stories, and they're not just anecdotal, they're too continuous to be dismissed."
Waiting an hour for a copy of a marriage license is "unacceptable," says Burke. Online access to the records that judicial officials allow the public to view isn't as easy as it could be, he adds.
Record retrieval on DeBlaker's Web site was once cutting edge. "Unfortunately, that was offered to us around 12 years ago and we're still there," says Burke.
Burke sees the shift of courthouse funding from the county to the state ushering in a new era of user fees covering more of the operational cost of the clerk's office. Better technology will reduce some of that cost, he says.
"The most expensive way I could run this office is never get new equipment and never advance in technology," says Burke, sitting in a conference room at the law firm. "The price of technology has gone down, and continues to go down. So you have to look at what old technology is costing your business. And the clerk's office is a business, in that regard."
The clerk needs a cleaner Web site so more records can be accessed from outside of the courthouse, says Burke, freeing staff to reduce the waiting lines inside the courthouse. Unwieldy proprietary software should give way to the simpler interfaces that computer users find at electronic-commerce sites, he says.
"Expedia makes it very easy to buy an airplane ticket," says Burke. "They don't say, 'well, here's a manual to read,' to be able to buy your ticket. That's how the clerk's office has to run."
Burke doesn't think Aungst is interested enough in the task of revamping the clerk's operation. He notes that the Clearwater mayor toyed with entering other county and state election contests before settling on the $135,222-a-year clerk's post.
While Aungst portrays himself as a white knight who ousted an unpopular city manager and got Clearwater moving again, Burke claims the mayor has made a municipal mess.
A new traffic roundabout that was torn up by popular demand and an unfinished bridge with cracks in its supports do not speak well of Aungst's tenure, according to Burke.
City taxpayers are responsible for a third of the cost of the bridge to Clearwater Beach, says Burke, but Aungst has turned over all final decisions regarding the troubled bridge construction to state transportation officials.
"You talk about part of the clerk's job is a watchdog over the public funds," says Burke. "I would not turn over a third of the county's money with no strings attached and with the provision in there that the city is responsible for cost overruns. That's in the contract."
Aungst confirms his city is responsible for cost overruns, but not excess costs related to problems with poor design, inferior materials or shoddy workmanship that appear to be the cause of the recent construction delays on the bridge.
The mayor says the routes into and out of the roundabout, which was constructed before his 1999 election, were improved during his administration. "We fixed the thing. I hope he wants to fix things at the clerk's office," Aungst says of Burke.
Burke says the Aungst administration has committed the city's share of Penny for Pinellas sales tax receipts for years to come to repaying bonds that have funded a series of controversial public works projects, says Burke.
"Basically, future commissions will have no say-so over the Penny for Pinellas money because it's all already bonded for paying the roundabout bond money, the falling-down bridge bond money, and the Phillies stadium to subsidize millionaire owners of baseball teams," says Burke.
Aungst says Clearwater's contribution to the new Philadelphia Phillies spring-training stadium came from retained earnings. "It's a heck of a deal," says the mayor. "For $6.5 million, Clearwater gets a $30 million stadium and the Phillies spend $6 million to $7 million in the local economy every year while they use it."
Phillies Florida LLC has come through with $500 in donations to the Aungst-for-clerk campaign. The major league team's new Clearwater stadium is named for Aungst's other employer, Bright House Networks LLC.
Burke says Aungst uses his position as a regional public-affairs director at the cable company to advance his political career. At the end of May, however, Aungst says Bright House pulled tourism promotional spots that featured Aungst with the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
In addition, Burke claims Aungst delivers Bright House checks to political candidates at election time. But Burke acknowledges fulfilling the same function for DeLoach & Hofstra.
Two recipients of DeLoach & Hofstra campaign donations, state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole, and state Senate Majority Leader Dennis L. Jones, R-Treasure Island, have withdrawn their support for Aungst and switched to his side, Burke contends.
Neither lawmaker returned GCBR's calls. But Aungst says Waters was pressured by Burke and is now neutral in the clerk's primary. Aungst says he has heard nothing to indicate Jones has backed out, too.
Despite that dustup, Burke wants the clerk's office to improve relations with other politicians and county employees.
"Being independent is different than having a cantankerous relationship," says Burke, a thinly veiled reference to DeBlaker's occasional sparring with county commissioners and the judiciary. "You can be independent and still be cooperative."
Burke sounds inclined to rein in the internal auditing office that DeBlaker has built into an aggressive check on improper practices and wasteful spending.
Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Burke to St. Petersburg College's board of trustees, which he now chairs. Burke prefers the collegial manner of the trustees in handling audits.
"It's not a detective thing," says Burke, who did little auditing himself during a short stint at a public accounting firm more than 20 years ago. "The auditor is not there to get ya. The auditor is there to make sure things are presented fairly and they've gone through the procedure properly."
A novice political candidate, Burke still realizes he has to speak carefully about county employees, an important voting bloc. Out of financial self-interest, the employees tend to pay closer attention than the average voter to county elections like his.
"The staff at the clerk's office is a good staff. They're hard-working people. They're professional," says Burke. "I think, though, there needs to be an attitude change in the clerk's office. There needs to be a focus on taxpayer service."
He pauses to praise Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith's staff as a model that he would try to follow. "The clerk's office has to have this taxpayer service mentality to it," says Burke.
Kenneth Patrick Burke
Political office sought: Clerk of the Sixth Circuit Court for Pinellas County
Born: Nov. 10, 1959 in Philadelphia; moved to Florida at the age of 12
Higher education: St. Petersburg College, associate degree; University of South Florida, bachelor of science degree in accounting
Current positions: CPA and law office administrator for DeLoach & Hofstra PA; chairman, St. Petersburg College board of trustees
Family: Wife Cecilia and their three children live in Largo