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Pinellas County attorneys say unique situation involving term limits may void referendum

A Broward County election case that upheld term limits in Florida already has taken political casualties.

There's Jim Fuller, the longtime Jacksonville county clerk of courts who hoped to run for another term and was blocked. In Polk County, two commissioners were barred from seeking a third term this year.

Though term limits have been upheld in every Florida county that has fought them in court lately, Pinellas County attorneys are confident that the circumstances here are unique.

Undergirding this belief is the unusual way the county handled a 1996 term-limits referendum. At the time, more than 72 percent of voters approved setting two four-year terms for county commissioners and the five constitutional officers: sheriff, clerk of the circuit court, supervisor of elections, tax collector and property appraiser.

Typically, when a referendum is approved, it becomes part of a county's charter. But not in Pinellas, where officials believed it was unconstitutional and asked a judge for permission to keep it out of the charter.

Like Pinellas, Duval County residents also approved term limits in a referendum that weren't enforced while attorneys battled over the issue. However, Duval commissioners amended the charter to include the limits.

The Supreme Court had initially ruled that term limits were unconstitutional and then, last May, reversed itself and decided to uphold them. Applying the latest decision, a judge ruled that the Duval term limits statute had been revived and should be applied to the clerk of courts.

Lindsey Brock III, the attorney who represented the Jacksonville clerk, said he thinks Pinellas County is in "a unique situation."

Brock said that a judge could rule that even if a referendum never became law, it could still be treated like a statute and brought back to life. In this case, two county commissioners, Karen Seel and Ken Welch, both of whom are seeking a fourth term, could be barred from running again.

"I could also see the court saying no, they need a new referendum," Brock said. "It's not clear cut, but if I had to tip the scale, I'd tip it toward the court saying the referendum is still valid."

Jim Bennett, the Pinellas County attorney, refused to comment on his legal strategy but is clearly betting that a judge would go in the other direction.

Bennett "is confident that the Pinellas term limits issue is materially different from Duval County's," wrote commissioner Ken Welch in an email. "I have received the same opinion from other attorneys."

For Welch, there is another wrinkle that could exempt him from term limits, at least in this election.

In 1996, when voters adopted the Eight is Enough referendum, Welch's seat on the County Commission did not exist. At the time, there were only five commissioners. Three years later, when voters added two seats to the board, Welch's district, which includes most of St. Petersburg, was born.

Last month, he won a Democratic primary race with 69 percent of the vote. Karen Seel, the other commissioner who has been in office more then eight consecutive years, is running uncontested.

Mail ballots are scheduled to go out Oct. 2, not long after a judge is set to hear the term limits case on Sept. 20. If the court rules before the general election that term limits apply to Pinellas County, the election could become a tangled affair.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections, said that while much would depend on the court's ruling, if term limits were upheld in Pinellas, Seel's seat would likely be subject to a special election.

And if a court blocked Welch from running in the general election, the Democratic Party would have the right to appoint a replacement.

"If you talk about the will of the voters, I think that was clearly expressed on August 14th," he said, the day of his primary win. "I would think a judge would take that into consideration."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com

Pinellas County attorneys say unique situation involving term limits may void referendum 09/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 10:21pm]
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