Sunday, April 20, 2014

Appellate court sides with Pinellas term limit scofflaws


That is the only explanation that the Second District Court of Appeals gave voters for their acquiescence to Pinellas County commissioners to ignore the 8-year term limits law approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1996.  The decision was rendered on April 16.

Of the 20 charter -- or "home rule" -- counties that have the power to customize their county government structure, 12 so far have passed term limits, mostly of the 8-year variety.  Most have enforced their term limits from day one, but a couple of recalcitrant county commissions (Sarasota and Broward, to be specific) fought them in court claiming they were unconstitutional. However, in 2012, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously decided that county commission term limits are indeed constitutional. For good measure, they also decided that constitutional officer term limits are constitutional, overturning an earlier split decision.

As a result, every term-limited county in Florida except one is enforcing their voter-approved term limits. The exception is Pinellas, and so far they are getting cover from the courts. 

Why? The appellate court wouldn't say. Perhaps this is because there is nothing to say.

It appears the courts so far have taken the position that the term limits were approved so long ago, they have never been enforced in Pinellas County, it would upset the political apple cart, it would be far easier to just let the status quo stand. Can't we just all move on?

That is not a legal argument, of course.

The scofflaw incumbent commissioners named in the case rest their legal hat on the shaky premise that the Supreme Court effectively overturned Pinellas' term limits law in its 2002 Cook decision which ruled constitutional officer term limits unconstitutional. That's why the commissioners refused to place the voter-approved amendment in their charter.

Well, yes, the Pinellas law did include constitutional officers and this provision was clearly shot down, if only temporarily.

One of the problems with that argument is that the court never explicitly overturned the Pinellas law, and indeed the Cook decision didn't even mention the issue of county commission term limits. Moreover, three other counties in which courts explicitly overturned the term limits (Sarasota, Broward and Duval) are now enforcing their limits due to the unanimous Supreme Court decision of 2012 deeming them constitutional. That includes Duval County, which was part of the Cook decision case!

How can that be squared with last week's decision in Pinellas? It can't -- which means that the last chapter of this story is not yet written. Patrick Wheeler, who -- along with Maria Scruggs -- is leading this lawsuit on behalf of voters, has vowed to take this case to the next, and last, step.

Will the Supreme Court of Florida let a handful of corrupt local politicians defy its unanimous decision as well as the will of a large majority of Pinellas County voters?  I can't imagine it. But we will find out due to the courage, honesty and persistence of citizens Wheeler and Scruggs.

The appellants are soliciting donations for legal expense. Please help. Checks can be sent to John Shahan, PA, 536 East Tarpon Avenue #3, Tarpon Springs, FL, 34689 please mark check “For Term Limits Expenses."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Grimsley and the petty arrrogance of power

Following the lead attack by Rep. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), Sen. Denise Grimsley (R-Sebring) has launched the second salvo against Florida's voter-initiated and -approved 8-year term limits law.

Last week, Grimsley introduced a slightly different Senate version of Perry's bill to weaken the legislative term limits from eight to 12 years. Surely she recalls the bill passing in 1992 with 77 percent of the vote. Surely she has done sufficient homework to find recent polling showing that Floridians' love of term limits is undimmed. Surely, she has seen the negative reaction Rep. Perry has received from the public.

But there is a hubris that comes from holding office too long that blinds politicians. Legislators feel that they are irreplacable and hence are disdainful of the democratic tradition of rotation. Sen. Grimsley served eight years in the House and now wants an additional 12 years in the Senate. Oh, and she'd like a longer term so she doesn't have to face the voters as often.

It is pretty clear why. Voters are disgusted with this kind of self-serving behavior and she doesn't want to hear it. She hears the higher call of her career and of the special interests that further it.

Sen. Grimsely has figured out the professional politicians' path to career success.  Once in power, keeping it is a simple process. It requires little more than taking out one's Rolodex, reassuring the special interests that you're still on board and accepting their checks. Nearly all PAC money goes to the incumbents. The powers of the incumbency and its daunting purse chases away meaningful competition. She doesn't want to be bothered with the rubes of her district and their shabby interests.

In 2005-06, when self-interested politicians last made a serious attempt to ditch our 8-year term limits, there was such an outcry the anti-term limits amendment bill was repealed shortly after it passed.  Sen. Grimsley, Rep. Keith Perry and the rest of the legislature need to hear from us right now.

Check out Sunday's op-ed by Nick Tomboulides in Highland Today -- Sen. Grimsely's hometown paper -- where he takes her to task for her arrogance. For regular updates, be sure also to LIKE the Save Florida Term Limits Facebook page.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Perry attack on term limits stirs controversy in hometown

In Sunday's Gainesville Sun, I make the case in an op-ed that Rep. Keith Perry's (R-Gainesville) bill to weaken Florida term limits from eight to 12 years is an effort to benefit legislators at the expense of citizens.

"The results during Florida's term limits era have been good. Legislatures are like marriages, in that they are all dysfunctional in their own special way. But some are definitely better than others — and Florida's is pretty good. In a 2013 ranking of states by their fiscal condition — an outcome highly influenced by government policy — the Mercatus Center at George Mason University ranked Florida as sixth in the nation. Incidentally, five of the top 10 states in this ranking have eight-year term limits on their legislatures. So, it must be asked again, why is Rep. Perry launching this attack on eight-year term limits?"
The answer isn't flattering to Rep. Perry. Perry is a successful businessman who got the opportunity to run because Speaker Larry Cretul reached his 8-year limit in the House. Now, it appears Rep. Perry wants to cut the ladder off beneath him.
Perry rationalizes this in a straight piece in today's Gainesville Sun.  He claims eight years isn't sufficient to master the complexities of being a Florida legislator. Eight-year limits are, however, the most common in the United States from the president, to governors, to state legislatures, to county commissions and mayors. He does not explain what makes being a Florida legislator so particularly daunting.
Hint: It isn't.
Fortunately, I was provided a chance to respond. "Blumel said that when politicians say eight years is too short, people should keep in mind that the Florida Senate is made up of many former members of the state House of Representatives who possess considerable legislative experience, while the lower chamber has more political newcomers who provide better representation of the citizenry."
Instead of focusing on the centerpiece of the legislation, the weakening of term limits, Perry instead focuses on the fact the bill also lengthens the terms themselves from two to four in the House and four to six in the Senate. But these are just window dressing. Legislators have tried to loosen their limits numerous times and continue to test new angles to slip this idea by voters.
Perhaps the best quote in the article isn't by Rep. Perry or me. It is by Alachua County Democratic Party Chairman Robert Prather.
"We're disappointed that Rep. Perry seems more interested in protecting jobs in Tallahassee... than ... Gainesville, Alachua County and Dixie," Prather said.
For the complete articles, see Blumel op-ed and Perry news article.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

KEEP 8-YEAR TERM LIMITS bumper sticker available! suggests an overwhelming majority of Floridians oppose the weakening of our state's voter-approved term limits from eight to 12 years.

Nonetheless, Gainesville Republican Rep. Keith Perry has introduced new legislation to do just that. His personal interest as a legislator apparently is a higher priority than your interests as a citizen.

Floridians spoke in 1992 when they approved 8-year legislative term limits with a 77 percent vote. It is time for the people to speak again.  One way to do it is with this tasteful, high-quality vinyl bumper sticker: KEEP 8-YEAR TERM LIMITS. This sticker is easily removable without any damage to your vehicle. And, they're free.

To get one, go here and include your contact info including mailing address and you'll find one in your mailbox promptly. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pinellas citizens continue to challenge corrupt commissioners

According to a 2012 study, Florida is the most corrupt state in the United States based on the number of state officials convicted on federal public corruption charges..

"Florida faces a corruption crisis that threatens the state's reputation, its economy and its ability to attract new jobs and capital," wrote study authors Dan Krassner and Ben Wilcox.

This should come as no surprise to Pinellas County residents, who are governed by four county commissioners in defiance of the county's voter-approved 8-year term limits law. After the term limits amendment was approved by 73% of voters in 1996, commissioners refused to insert the amendment into the county charter even after it was validated by a district court in 1999 and the state Supreme Court in 2012.

That it was their duty to do so is beyond question. Per charter Article VI Sec. 6-02 (3): "If approved by a majority of those electors voting on the amendment at the general election, the amendment shall become effective on the date specified in the amendment, or, if not so specified, on January 1 of the succeeding year." While a court has the power to invalidate an amendment, there is no leeway here for commissioners alone to refuse to accept the vote of the people.

After a commissioner-friendly local court refused to grant relief, Pinellas citizens are now appealing to the Second District Court of Appeals to have their votes finally counted. On Sept. 30, appellants H. Patrick Wheeler and Maria Scruggs filed their Initial Brief to the Lakeland court.

The filing is against Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Kenneth Welch and Karen Seel, the four commissioners who cling to their power and paychecks in defiance of law. Among other things, the brief documents their ill-gotten gains, including annual salaries of close to $100,000 when including expenses. It also points out the commissioners are using taxpayer money to invalidate the clearly expressed will of those same taxpayers.

The appellants are soliciting donations for legal expense. Please help. Checks can be sent to John Shahan, PA, 536 East Tarpon Avenue #3, Tarpon Springs, FL, 34689 please mark check “For Term Limits Expenses."

Let's show Pinellas County commissioners that crime doesn't pay.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Smoking gun: Pinellas commissioners conceded on term limits in 2000

A smoking gun has been uncovered in the Pinellas term limits case and the defendants' fingerprints are all over it.
You may recall that county commission and constitutional officer term limits passed with 73 percent of the vote in 1996, but the county refused to insert the amendment into their charter as clearly required by the law due to its alleged constitutional ambiguity.
The county commission and the five constitutional officers sued the voters to get the amendment overturned. The district court denied them, upholding the constitutionality of the term limits.
The constitutional officers continued their suit and requested authorization to add the Pinellas County Commission to the appeal. However, the minutes of the 5/30/00 county commission meeting -- uncovered via a FOIA request on behalf of plaintiffs in the ongoing case to force commissioners to comply with the law -- clearly show that the Pinellas County Commission chose not to participate.
According to the document, County Attorney Susan Churuti advised the commission of their options and the process of becoming appellants. But, the document says, "following discussion, Commissioner [and current defendant Karen] Seel moved, seconded by Commissioner Parks and carried, that the county commission do nothing and let the ruling stand."
The constitutional officers went all the way to the Supreme Court, alone. This is why only constitutional officer term limits were reviewed in the split 2002 Cook decision that declared constitutional officer limits to be unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court never tackled the issue of county commission term limits until 2012 when it unanimously declared them to be constitutional. For good measure, the Supremes overturned Cook at the same time, declaring without ambiguity that charter county voters have the right to impose term limits on their public servants.
Since then, 10 of the 11 charter counties with county commission term limits are obeying the law. Most of them always did. Only Pinellas -- after losing at the district level and then at the Florida Supreme Court -- continues to defy the voters and the law.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Judge gives Pinellas County special pass to ignore term limits law

It was a surprising defeat in Pinellas County, Fla., on May 2 when Circuit Court Judge John Schaefer sided with the politicians in their row with voters over the county’s voter-approved 8-year county commissioner term limits law.

As previously reported, Pinellas County failed to insert the term limits language in the county charter as clearly required by law after the amendment was passed by 73% in 1996. Commissioners claim they were justified in doing so because of the constitutional ambiguity of the measure. But in May 2012 the Supreme Court of Florida unanimously declared county commission term limits to be constitutional. In all other charter counties in Florida, the Supreme Court decision meant county commission term limits laws would either remain in effect or, in the case of Sarasota and Broward counties, would begin to be enforced.

But not Pinellas. Only here, in this Gulf Coast Florida county that includes St. Petersburg, commissioners claim a special exemption from the Supreme Court decision. Here, they argue, there was no amendment to enforce because the county never entered it in the charter!

In making this decision, the court accepted this arguably criminal act as a fait accompli. Fixing it would be disruptive – as three commissioners would be forced from office – but looking the other way would be easy. The judge took the cowardly course and the will of Pinellas County voters has been nullified.

Well, maybe. Patrick Wheeler and the other plaintiffs in the case against the commissioners are not taking this lying down. They are currently working on the brief for their appeal in the Second Court of Appeals in Lakeland. In preparing the case, they faced a potential problem: The social and political connections between the scofflaw Pinellas Commissioners and a couple of Second Appeals Court judges were well known. Cocktail party politics sunk the first case and it seemed fated to happen again.
Fortunately, the two judges in question -- Silberman and Khouzam – recused themselves immediately upon the request of the citizen plaintiffs and Wheeler is confident he will receive a fair hearing.

Term limits rarely are defeated at the ballot box. When they fall, it is nearly always the result of legal machinations by affected politicians and politicized courts. Wheeler and company deserve our help in writing a different ending to this old, old story.

(Contributions are needed to defray legal costs for the single lawyer on the citizens' side. Please help. Right now, the lion's share of the cost is being handled by just one man, plaintiff H. Patrick Wheeler. Donations can be made payable to and mailed to John A. Shahan, 536 E. Tarpon Ave. #3, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689. Please note 'term limits' in memo field of check.)