CLEARWATER — A lawsuit challenging the right of four long-serving Pinellas County commissioners to remain in office will go forward, a judge ruled on Wednesday.
But the suit, filed in June by three Pinellas residents, will not proceed exactly as planned.
Though he rejected the county's attempts to dismiss the lawsuit, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer did ask that significant changes be made to it.
Tarpon Springs attorney John Shahan, who is representing the plaintiffs, is claiming that Commissioners Karen Seel, John Morroni, Ken Welch, and Susan Latvala have overstayed the two four-year term limits voters placed on commissioners in 1996.
Shahan laid some of the blame on Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark who, he said, was obligated to bar Seel and Welch from running for re-election this November.
On Wednesday, Schaefer disagreed, ruling that Clark should be dropped from the suit.
Clark's attorney argued that it was not within Clark's power to decide who was eligible to run for office.
"The only job that a supervisor of elections has is to accept papers and file them," said attorney Christy Pemberton. "So to the extent that term limits are determined to be applicable to Pinellas County, that still doesn't involve the supervisor."
Schaefer also ruled that Shahan could not sue the four commissioners both as government officials and as individuals, which the complaint proposed to do.
He gave Shahan 30 days to revise the complaint, after which the county has another 30 days to respond.
That time line means that lawyers for both sides are unlikely to address the central legal questions in the suit until early spring, said Pinellas attorney Sarah Richardson.
At the suit's core is the argument that the referendum to create term limits that Pinellas voters approved 16 years ago is still valid today even though it never officially became law.
Usually when voters approve a referendum, it becomes part of the county's charter.
But in this case Pinellas officials immediately challenged the referendum's constitutionality.
The suit went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which initially found term limits unconstitutional and then, last May, reversed that decision.
The new ruling energized a small group of Pinellas residents, many of whom were not involved in the original 1996 referendum but had come to see term limits as a way of forcing change on the commission.
Of the three plaintiffs in the suit, two — Beverley Billiris and Maria Scruggs — have run unsuccessfully against current commissioners.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.