Pinellas county commissioners who refuse to comply with Pinellas County's voter-approved 8-year term limits law are in denial. They had hoped for a summary dismissal as the citizen's case as 'frivolous.'
But on Nov. 28, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer refused to dismiss the suit, suggesting that citizens may be correct that Commissioners Ken Welch, Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Karen Seel are serving on the Pinellas Commission in violation of the county charter.
In 1996, some 73 percent of Pinellas voters approved an 8-year term limits law which, according the Pinellas Charter, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1997. This gave commissioners an additional eight years in office before the term limit kicked in. However, commissioners refused to insert the term limits language into the charter and eight years later commissioners refused to leave.
Commissioners justified their rebellion by claiming county commission term limits are unconstitutional, citing a 2002 case in which the Supreme Court of Florida found term limits on constitutional officers to be unconstitutional. Relying on this interpretation, they simply ignored a local Pinellas court decision in 2000 to the contrary without even bothering to appeal it!
The only trouble with the constitutionality excuse is that the Supreme Court never ruled on the issue of county commission term limits and when it did, in May of this year, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that, yes, county commission term limits are constitutional and always were. The Supremes even went so far as to overturn their previous split decision on constitutional officers. Oops.
Following the Supreme Court ruling, three Pinellas residents connected with Save Pinellas filed a suit to compel compliance with the term limits provision in the charter.
In yesterday's decision, the judge ruled that the Supervisor of Elections must be dropped from the suit and other minor changes, but that the core of the complaint had merit. It is unlikely there will be any resolution of this until at least Spring 2013.
If the lawsuit is successful, the governor would have to appoint four new people to fill the vacant seats until the next election.