In a much-anticipated court hearing Thursday, Pinellas County lawyers squared off against a group of residents seeking to unseat four county commissioners accused of violating term limits.
Though the lawsuit was filed in June 2012, it was not until Thursday's hearing that lawyers for both sides delved into the legal arguments at the heart of the case. Up until this point, they have been obscured by disagreements over who ought to be included in the lawsuit, which names Commissioners Susan Latvala, Ken Welch, Karen Seel, and John Morroni.
Plaintiffs Maria Scruggs, H. Patrick Wheeler, and Beverley Billiris sued the commissioners, citing a 1996 referendum that voters approved that limited commissioners to two four-year terms. They contend that in the years following the vote, elected officials flagrantly ignored the term limits and did not write them into the county's charter.
Arguing before Pinellas Pasco Circuit Court Judge John Schaefer, Steven Dupre, a private lawyer hired by the county, countered that term limits in Pinellas are moot. In the years after 72 percent of Pinellas voters approved term limits, Florida's Supreme Court found them unconstitutional and sent the lower courts a mandate instructing them to quash earlier rulings upholding them.
The fact that the Supreme Court issued a new ruling last year upholding term limits does not automatically revive them, Dupre said.
"The plaintiffs' theory here is that [the second Supreme Court ruling] is like a time warp," Dupre said. "And they jumped through a black hole and went back in time … and suddenly the commissioners that have been serving as good county servants for years are serving illegally."
The commission also is composed differently today than it was in the '90s, he argued, noting that in 1999 voters approved expanding the number of members from five to seven.
In this response, the plaintiffs' lawyer, John Shahan, said the Supreme Court's initial ruling didn't apply. Although Pinellas voters approved term limits for both county commissioners and constitutional officers, the state's high court only ruled them unconstitutional for the latter group, he said.
"The county commissioners were not part of that ruling," Shahan said. Untouched by the decision, they should be subject to term limits, he added. Dupre said that documents show the ruling covered both the commissioners and the constitutional officers.
Following the arguments, Judge Schaefer said he would issue a ruling by May 17.
Wheeler, one of the plaintiffs, said the hearing was "magnificent."
"I really think we're winning," he said, with a grin. "We had everything well at hand. And they just didn't have all the facts in the right order."
Asked whether he planned to appeal the case if the judge does not rule in favor, Wheeler shot back: "Are you standing on the floor? That's your answer."
The four commissioners named in the suit did not attend the hearing, nor did Billiris, one of the plaintiffs.