Pinellas County voters may go to the polls this November unsure if they legally can return some of their county commissioners to office.
With less than eight weeks to go until the Nov. 6 election, a lawsuit challenging the right of four commissioners to remain in office is slowly winding its way through the courts. Filed in June by three Pinellas residents, it accuses the elected officials of violating eight-year term limits that were approved by voters in 1996, but never enacted.
One of the commissioners named in the suit, Ken Welch, is on the November ballot. Another, Karen Seel, is running for office unopposed. If both are blocked from running before the election takes place, Seel's seat would be filled by a special election and the Democratic Party would have the right to appoint a replacement for Welch. It is unclear how they would be affected by a ruling after the election results are in.
Commissioners Susan Latvala and John Morroni are also part of the challenge, but they do not face re-election this year.
On Thursday, lawyers for the county warned that the suit could be months away from resolution, especially if the plaintiffs decide to dig into its complicated origins.
To move the case along, Pinellas County attorney Jack Powell argued in favor of not holding a full trial. If the case is decided by a summary judgment, the county's attorneys could be ready to argue it in a month. But it could take more than 90 days for a full-fledged trial, he said.
Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady also brought up the time element. Mail ballots in Pinellas County go out Oct. 2.
"Believe me, I want to get this case resolved and resolved quickly for everyone's sake, so that the commissioners know where they stand and public knows where they stand," he said.
Judge John Schaefer has been assigned to the case.
Speaking after the hearing, plaintiff H. Patrick Wheeler, an East Lake resident who voted for term limits in 1996, said he hoped the case would go to trial. He also wants to see it resolved before the election, he said.
Wheeler and fellow plaintiffs Maria Scruggs and Beverley Billiris have accused the commission of skirting the law to prevent term limits from becoming part of the county's charter. Typically, once voters approve a referendum, it is inserted into the charter.
A trial would "disclose the skullduggery by the county commissioners," Wheeler said.
Sarah Richardson, a Pinellas County attorney, said the referendum never became law because it was challenged in court, putting in place an automatic stay.