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Court ruling on term limits may throw wrinkle into Pinellas elections

Way back in 1996, Pinellas voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to limit the number of terms elected county officials could serve before stepping aside for a fresh face.

Six years later, the Florida Supreme Court overturned that charter amendment, saying it was unconstitutional.

A week ago, the state Supreme Court did what it seldom does — changed its mind. It's now okay for voters to place term limits on their county commissioners.

What does that mean for Pinellas? Does this revive the 1996 amendment? If so, does that mean term limits start tolling from that time? Or does it begin from last week when the new decision was handed down? Does it mean some officials will have to leave office midterm or stop re-election bids?

Those answers pretty much depend on whom you ask.

About the only thing they seem to agree on is that the new decision gives activists a chance to go back to the beginning so voters can once again decide if they want term limits for county officials.

Other answers are more murky.

County attorney Jim Bennett, who will have to advise county commissioners on their best strategy, says he's not sure about the effect of the new ruling. He said he plans to meet with a group of lawyers Friday to discuss the case and any possible fallout. Bennett also notes that it might be a bit early to talk about the situation because the parties in the most recent case, which did not involve Pinellas, have until Monday to ask the Supreme Court for a rehearing.

Bennett said he was clear on one fact: The court did not overrule itself. It simply "receded" from its decision in 2002. While that may seem like splitting hairs, Bennett's interpretation, if correct, could mean county commissioners are not subject to the new ruling.

Former county attorney Susan Churuti, on the other hand, is definite in thinking that the court did not overrule itself.

"I don't think it does affect Pinellas," she said.

Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong differs, saying the new ruling trumps the first.

"It certainly has implications for Pinellas County," Armstrong said. "It's a new world now. … The potential for significant change is present. It depends on what citizens do with this thing, if anything. That's hard to predict."

T. Wayne Bailey, a professor of political science on the DeLand campus of Stetson University, said the situation is perfect for the final exam in a law school class on constitutional issues. It's "very clear," he said, that the court overruled itself.

"The easy answer is nothing happens because the case (last week) doesn't change Pinellas' status quo," Bailey said. "My offhand feeling is you're in a legal wasteland, (a) never-never land."

Churuti says the future is not murky: The only way term limits could return for elected county officials is for voters to pass a new referendum.

The reason, she said, lies in the history of the 1996 amendment, which was supported by more than 72 percent of the voters. Known as "Eight is Enough," the initiative limited to eight consecutive years the terms of county commissioners and the five constitutional officers — the sheriff, supervisor of elections, clerk of the circuit court, property appraiser and tax collector.

Once passed, it was supposed to be inserted into the county charter, or constitution.

But that never happened.

"Because it was a controversy and we thought it was wrong," Churuti said, the county asked a judge for permission to keep it out of the charter until all lawsuits had been resolved. And, after losing in two lower courts, those who opposed the term limit amendment narrowly won in the state Supreme Court. With the final decision on its side, the county never inserted the language into the charter.

Therefore, even if last week's ruling does apply, it can't be used to knock out any sitting commissioners or to prevent them from running this election, Churuti said. In short, last week's ruling would not "revive" the term limit amendment.

To get term limits, a movement would have to start from the beginning, she said.

Bailey said it's not that simple.

"I think the system is under a cloud at the moment," Bailey said. "Somebody could come out of the woodwork, could file a legal challenge. … It is one of those answers which is still out there in the ether."

If term limits come back, either because of a grass roots effort or because it is somehow revived and placed into the charter, a majority of the seven-member County Commission could be affected.

Ken Welch and Karen Seel are running for re-election this year. Both have been on the commission for at least eight years. Neither could be reached Wednesday for comment. The others with eight or more years of service are John Morroni and Susan Latvala.

"This is big time because it affects the whole power structure of the community," said Bailey. "It will ignite, as it should, serious consideration in a great many directions. The answers are not so clear cut."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Court ruling on term limits may throw wrinkle into Pinellas elections 05/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 1:38am]

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