Pinellas County Commissioners, seated, from left, Karen Seel, Ken Welch, John Morroni; standing, Charlie Justice, Susan Latvala, Janet Long and Norm Roche. A Circuit Court judge ruled May 16 in favor of Seel, Welch, Morroni and Latvala in a lawsuit that attempted to remove the four from office.
CLEARWATER – Circuit Court Judge John A. Schaefer has spoken. Term limits approved by referendum in 1996 do not apply to current Pinellas County Commissioners.
For months, four longtime commissioners were accused of serving illegally. A select group of residents demanded publicly that that Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch step down.
On June 26, 2012, three citizens filed a lawsuit against the Supervisor of Elections and commissioners Latvala, Morroni, Welch and Seel, individually and in their official capacity.
The suit, filed by Maria Scruggs, who unsuccessfully ran against Welch in the Aug. 14, 2012 primary, Beverly Billiris and H. Patrick Wheeler, asked the court for a declaratory judgment to reinstate charter term limits for county commissioners as approved by the 1996 referendum.
At that time, the board consisted for five commissioners elected from countywide districts.
The 1996 term limit amendment was challenged in the courts and declared unconstitutional Sept. 8, 2003.
The citizens that filed the lawsuit last year contended that a May 10, 2012 Supreme Court decision on charter-based term limits, Telli v. Broward County, could be applied retroactively in Pinellas, meaning the commissioners named in the suit were no longer eligible to serve.
The county attorney’s office said all along that the new rules established under the May Supreme Court ruling would be applied going forward from the date of the decision, not retroactively. Judge Schaefer agreed in a ruling issued May 16.
“The current Pinellas County Charter provisions that contain no term limits for the Pinellas County Commissioners are valid and not affected by the recent Telli v. Broward County … decision,” Schaefer wrote in his ruling. “The 2003 final judgment of this court declaring the 1996 referendum for term limits unconstitutional as required by the Florida Supreme Court in Cook v. Jacksonville … remains binding. Any future referendums would be governed by Telli. The charter amendments cannot be revived.”
Only one commissioner has commented thus far, although requests have been sent to all via email.
Commissioner Ken Welch posted on his Facebook page shortly after the decision became public, “Truth prevails. Thanks to God, my family and friends for your unwavering support. I’m back to work tomorrow for the citizens of Pinellas.”
Morroni sent a comment via email May 17.
"I am pleased with the judge's decision and I look forward to continuing my service to the citizens of Pinellas County," Morroni said.
Revision: added reaction comment from Commissioner John Morroni.