Four of these seven Pinellas County Commissioners are long-time members. If term limits are placed on the ballot and the people vote to approve the amendment to the county’s charter, they would not be eligible to run for election again, starting in 2014. Shown here, from left, seated, are Karen Seel, John Morroni and Ken Welch; standing, are Neil Brickfield, Nancy Bostock, Susan Latvala and Norm Roche.
CLEARWATER – On Nov. 5, 1996, Pinellas County voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum calling for term limits for elected officials.
After a battle in the courts, the Florida Supreme Court found the term limit amendment unconstitutional, and on Sept. 8, 2003, the “Cook” decision was issued in a final order, according to a memo from County Attorney Jim Bennett.
Bennett said the decision made placing term limits in the county’s charter illegal. Term limits were never imposed. County Commissioners and Constitutional Officers can serve as long as they are re-elected.
On May 10, 2012, the state Supreme Court issued the “Telli” decision, upholding term limits for county commissioners in Broward and Sarasota counties.
“In the ‘Telli’ decision, the Court receded from the law it established in ‘Cook’, and in lieu thereof established a new rule of law, to be applied by the courts of Florida from that day forward,” Bennett’s said. “The Supreme Court’s decisions apply to the charter issues presented to the Court in those unique cases (Broward and Sarasota counties), and do not disturb the prior final decision of the Court in ‘Cook’ as it was applied to Pinellas County.”
In other words, the new court ruling does not require Pinellas to go back and retroactively apply the results of an election that happened nearly 16 years ago.
If it did, four of seven commissioners would be out of a job. Karen Seel, Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Ken Welch would have to go.
Bennett said the decision makes no difference to the county’s current charter, however, it does allow the charter to change to add limits to how long commissioners can serve in the future. The ruling does not affect constitutional officers or the school board.
Some residents disagree with the county attorney’s interpretation. They say the “will of the people” as expressed in 1996 should rule and the charter should be changed to impose term limits immediately.
Bennett said three paths are available to make term limits a part of the county’s charter. The commission can place a referendum on the ballot, the Charter Review Commission can place the question on the ballot or the citizens can undertake a petition initiative.
Patrick H. Wheeler reminded the commission of the vote from the 1996 election – 253,480 for to 95,334 against.
“Seven people are voiding the vote over some vague legality,” he said. “We expect you to uphold the law.”
He said the matter had to be placed on the ballot. He also scolded the commission for not informing the public about the decision sooner.
“Instead you’ve been looking for a way to circumvent it,” he said. “We ask that you expedite the court’s decision. The vote was a landslide. We can operate this county on three commissioners until you get it sorted out.”
Wheeler’s sentiments were repeated by nine others.
They questioned why the 2012 decision didn’t affect the historical rulings.
Bennett said when the Supreme Court issued its order, the lower court was required to overturn the citizen’s initiative for term limits. The lower court did not make its ruling until Nov. 8, 2003.
Bennett said the 2012 ruling “cannot disturb” the nine-year-old order from the lower courts.
Tony Caso of Palm Harbor insisted that the term limits should have been placed in the charter until the courts ruled, the taken out when found unconstitutional. Bennett explained that when the case was appealed the courts ordered a stay – meaning no action could be taken to place term limits in the charter.
The Cook decision applied to two legal challenges – one from Pinellas County and one from Duval County over the same issue. Bennett said that’s why residents found historical references to the case at two different district courts. Pinellas County’s case would have been heard by the Second District Court and the Duval County’s case in the First District Court.
Caso said the county should impose the decision made by the district court in 1999, which upheld the referendum.
“It should have been put in the county charter then,” he said. “We demand that it be put in the charter and be recognized from the year 2000.”
Commissioner Norm Roche asked about the circumstances surrounding the legal challenge by county officials.
“I don’t recall. It was 13 years ago,” Bennett said.
He offered to look it up.
“We’d all like to know,” said Commission Chair John Morroni.
“I was there. We discussed it,” said Commissioner Karen Seel. “Part of the concern was the cost (of the lawsuit).”
Deb Caso of Palm Harbor said she read a story in the St. Petersburg Times, published on May 30, 2000, that said the commissioners decided they wouldn’t challenge the referendum. In her opinion, that means, “four have to go.”
“It’s very heartbreaking to be here in the first place,” Regina Brown of Largo told the commissioners. “The people in Pinellas County ruled they wanted term limits. What we have here is a disagreement on the interpretation of the law. You’re grasping at the one that best suits you. Look at the interest of the people, not your self-interest. Accept the people’s will in this matter.”
Barbara Hazelton of St. Petersburg said spending eight years as a commissioner with pension would earn a person $1 million.
“I understand this is a nice gig,” she said, “but the gig is up. It’s only human nature to want to be builders and be an expert. Being a public official is not something to be an expert in.”
She said commission meetings were like “Red Cross meetings. Who has their hand out for my money? That’s not the role of government.”
Finally, Commission Chair John Morroni, who was back for his first meeting in months, asked the public to calm down.
“I don’t want to hear anyone yelling at us – not today,” he said.
Morroni has been undergoing cancer treatment since the first of the year.
“This is a very sensitive issue,” said Roche, who is for term limits.
He believes it is important to know what happened in the past.
“What was the board’s real purpose in pulling out of the lawsuit,” he said. “Acceptance?”
He said former Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd had resigned because the people had said they wanted term limits.
“This is a discussion we have to have,” Roche said.
Welch said he had asked for the matter to be placed on the agenda “so the people could have their say at the first opportunity.”
“I have no doubt some would like to see the four of us go,” he said.
Welch said recent commission decisions about rail, smart growth and transfer of development rights in Palm Harbor were becoming part of the discussion.
“If you don’t like our decisions, speak at the ballot box,” he said.
Term limits have not worked the best at the state level, Welch said, with newly elected officials “bowing to staff and lobbyist.” He said many who are ousted by term limits just run for another office.
“Term limits are an option at every election,” Welch said. “We the people is everyone in this county.”
He said some people think there are more pressing matters, such as EMS, that the commission should be addressing – not term limits.
If there is enough community support, Welch said term limits could be considered, but he suggested making the term 12 years, not eight years as approved by voters in 1996.
“I will not step down,” Welch said. “I was elected to serve.”
He said people could make their decision as to whether he should continue in office at the Aug. 14 primary election.
Bostock asked if there was a way to get an opinion on what she called the “eight is enough case” besides the one given by the county attorney.
“We can hire another lawyer to give an opinion,” Bennett said.
“But that would just be an opinion, not an authority,” she said.
She asked if there was a way to take the case back to the courts.
Bennett said he had called a meeting of the charter group, which included a “roomful of other attorneys.” He said the group could not find a way to open a judgment on a nine-year-old decision.
Bostock said she would like to move forward.
“The community did support it significantly in the past, but opinions may have changed,” she said.
Roche continued to insist that knowing the intent of the commission when they pulled out of the lawsuit made a difference. Bennett said the court had ruled on the constitutionality of the referendum vote, so it made no difference whether the commission was in or out at the time the ruling was made.
“It’s always good to look back at intent, but it doesn’t change the legality of eight is enough,” Bostock said.
“Intent is not applicable, just the final judgment of the court,” Bennett said.
Commissioner Susan Latvala said she didn’t support delving back into the past.
“What they thought at the time doesn’t have anything to do about it,” she said.
She said the real question was “does this board want to put this on the ballot in November or convene a charter commission, which is a long drawn out process.
“I think we should put it on the ballot and get it done in a very timely fashion,” Latvala said.
Morroni said when he ran for state office in 1992, term limits was a big issue. He said at the time, he would not run after serving eight years.
“Term limits passed, and I said I would leave and I did,” Morroni said.
But he also said there had never been any talk about term limits at the county level in all the years he had served on the commission. Morroni has served on the board since 2002. Morroni said he would support the commission placing a referendum on the ballot.
“Why something passed so greatly would not be held up by the courts,” Morroni said he didn’t understand. “It passed by thousands. I voted for it.”
If a term limit referendum passed in 2012, it would go into effect in 2014.
Jewel White with the county attorney’s office said she had talked to the Supervisor of Elections in anticipation of the discussion. She said the deadline to get the ballot language in was Aug. 3 at 5 p.m. She said it had to be in by that time to give the Elections Office time to print the ballots to begin mailing them out to overseas voters by Sept. 22.
Staff was asked to put the matter on the July 10 meeting agenda so the commission could formally vote to advertise a meeting to decide whether to instigate a referendum. The final decision could be made at the July 24 meeting.
Roche asked if Bennett could model the language after the referendum that passed in 1996. Bennett said he could try, but would have to remove the references to the Constitutional officers.
Historical account of the election and lawsuit
The historical account of Pinellas County’s Constitutional Officers published in 2006 includes some details about the lawsuit. The history was compiled by a number of county employees.
It seems that after the referendum passed, former Tax Collector W. Fred Petty hired an attorney using his own money to try to overturn the vote. The other four constitutional officers and the county commission joined his suit.
The elected officials lost their appeal in the local circuit court and the Second District Court ruled against them as well. The 2006 historical account says at that time the county commission and three of the constitutional officers decided to withdraw from the appeal.
“The Clerk and Sheriff, with the personal support of W. Fred Petty and assistance provided by the county legal department, carried on the appeal to the Supreme Court of Florida,” the 2006 account said.
The Supreme Court heard the case on Aug. 29, 2001 and ruled on May 23, 2002 that the 1996 citizens’ petition amendment was invalid because it “attempted to unconstitutionally impose an additional disqualification from election to office.”
The case was sent back to the lower courts, which denied requests for rehearing and clarification.
“The lower courts subsequently ruled as instructed by the Supreme Court, and the citizens’ initiative for term limits was overturned.”