Pinellas commissioners survive term-limits challenge
CLEARWATER - An effort to oust four Pinellas County commissioners came to an end today when a judge threw out a lawsuit seeking to enforce a 1996 term-limits referendum. Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer’s ruling is good news for commissioners Ken Welch, Karen Seel, Susan Latvala and John Morroni, each of whom has served longer than the two four-year terms voters approved. The Florida Supreme Court eventually ruled term limits unconstitutional in deciding a Jacksonville case. A Pinellas judge agreed and in 2003 issued a final judgment declaring the referendum void; no one bothered appealing that ruling within the designated time frame.Last year, though, the Florida Supreme Court appeared to soften its stance in upholding term limits for Broward County commissioners. The decision “breathed new life” into the desire to enforce Pinellas County’s term limits, Schaefer said in an eight-page order released today. Three Pinellas residents H. Patrick Wheeler, Maria Scruggs and former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris – filed suit last year, arguing that the commissioners should be thrown out of office because their terms had exceeded the limits voters approved. Scruggs has unsuccessfully challenged Welch, while Billiris has lost to Latvala. The plaintiffs also wanted the commissioners to reimburse the county for the salaries they collected beyond their initial eight years in office. Schaefer came down squarely on the side of the four commissioners and the county in his ruling. “The Court recognizes that there may very well be significant frustration stemming from this decision, particularly by the many voters who approved the referendum years ago,” he wrote. “However, this court is bound to follow the rule of law to enable all persons to rely upon decisions of the court when a judgment has become final without challenge.” The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in the Broward case did not negate its decision in the earlier case out of Jacksonville, nor did it set aside the final judgment voiding Pinellas’ term limits, Schaefer said in his ruling. “After a judgment has become truly final, a change in the applicable rule of law resulting from a later appellate decision in an unrelated case is not a ground for relief from the prior judgment,” he wrote, quoting from a different decision. As a result of more recent Florida Supreme Court rulings, voters could approve a new referendum imposing term limits, Steven Dupre, a private attorney representing the county, said at a hearing this month. Today, though, the county charter does not provide for term limits. The last time the charter was amended, in 1999, voters agreed to increase the number of county commissioners from four to seven, without any provision for term limits, Dupre said. John Shahan, the attorney for the plaintiffs, argued at the May 2 hearing that the term limits approved by voters in 1996 should have been added to the charter the following year. That would have been before the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on the referendum. If the plaintiffs had a problem with the county commissioners getting re-elected, they should have contested the individual elections within 10 days of the votes being certified, much as a candidate who lost a close race might, Assistant County Attorney John Powell said at the hearing.