Monday, December 18, 2017
News Roundup

Pinellas County commissioners not bound by term limits, judge rules

Pinellas County commissioners are not bound by term limits approved by voters more than a decade ago, a Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday.

The ruling represents a major victory for the four commissioners named in a lawsuit that sought to remove them from office. All four — Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel, and Ken Welch — have been on the commission for more than 12 years, winning re-election multiple times and cementing themselves as institutions in the districts they represent.

Anger over the four commissioners' quasi-permanence led three Pinellas residents, all of whom voted for term limits in 1996, to sue the commissioners last June in an attempt to shake up the county's political establishment. In their arguments, they cited a Florida Supreme Court ruling last spring that affirmed voters' right to place term limits on county elected officials. This ruling, they said, meant that the long-dormant term limits should be enforced.

But in his ruling, Pinellas Pasco Circuit Court Judge John Schaefer said the Supreme Court's decision did not give term limits a second life.

"The current Pinellas County Charter provisions that contain no term limits for the Pinellas County Commissioners are valid," he wrote. The term limits that voters approved "cannot be revived."

The judge's ruling dealt with two Florida Supreme Court cases: one banned term limits for some county elected officials in 2002, and a second that declared them legal in 2012. Although the plaintiffs argued that the second ruling had reversed the first, Schaefer said that was not the case. Instead, he wrote, the court "receded from its prior position," leaving its original ruling quashing term limits intact.

Along with affirming the four commissioners' right to remain in office, the judge's ruling said that term limits also did not apply to future officer holders. Pinellas residents would have to return to the polls and pass another referendum to make term limits law.

"The Court recognizes that there may very well be significant frustration stemming from this decision, particularly by the many voters who approved the referendum years ago," Schaefer wrote.

That disappointment was on display Thursday, as the plaintiffs digested the news. Maria Scruggs, an Orlando corrections supervisor and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the ruling seemed based on a technicality.

"I have said to the team all along that this is the only way they (the county) will win against us, they'll create a technicality and they will bet we won't be able to afford to appeal it, nor have the stamina," she said, adding that the group would likely appeal.

From the four commissioners, reactions to the judge's decision ranged from Welch's "Cool!" to Morroni's cool approval. The suit, which took nearly a year to reach a conclusion, brought a considerable amount of anxiety to the commissioners and chatter about potential challengers waiting in the wings.

For Welch, the lawsuit arrived in the middle of a primary election contest in which his opponent, Scruggs, was also his accuser. He won the election handily, but the suit dragged on, creating a sense of ongoing instability.

"I didn't lose a single precinct, so the will of the voters was very clearly expressed, yet we had this lawsuit hanging over our heads," he said. "It's good to have a court take a look at it and say there really was no basis there."

Latvala and Morroni, who were first elected to the commission in 2000, faced decisions about whether to run for their seats again in 2014. In the past, Latvala has said that if the court ruled against her, she would make this term her last. But if not, she would run again.

Morroni, who has been fighting cancer for several years and recently completed one year free of remission, said he is leaning toward running again, but is postponing making a final decision in case his health worsens.

Term limits' history in Pinellas County is long and convoluted. Approved by 73 percent of voters in 1996, the two four-year terms were supposed to apply to county commissioners and the five constitutional officers. But a series of legal challenges left their validity in constant doubt for years, until 2002, when the state Supreme Court took up the issue and a judge ruled that term limits were unconstitutional for some county elected officials. That decision held for the next 10 years, until another Supreme Court ruling reopened debate and energized term limits supporters to push for their return.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

Comments
Police: Woman killed in Clearwater drive-by shooting while daughter, 10, in back seat

Police: Woman killed in Clearwater drive-by shooting while daughter, 10, in back seat

CLEARWATER — A Palm Harbor woman was killed in a drive-by shooting while riding with her husband and 10-year-old daughter in a Nissan Sentra late Sunday, police said.Elizabeth Rosado, 30, was in the front passenger seat of the sedan, which was headed...
Updated: 21 minutes ago
Florida gas prices back to pre-Hurricane Harvey levels

Florida gas prices back to pre-Hurricane Harvey levels

Just in time for one of the busiest travel periods of the year, gas prices across Florida are back down to pre-Hurricane Harvey levels. Tampa Bay gas hit $2.30 per gallon today, while state prices averaged $2.37 per gallon, according to AAA, The Auto...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa flights affected as Atlanta airport outage creates holiday chaos

Tampa flights affected as Atlanta airport outage creates holiday chaos

ATLANTA — While power has been restored to the world’s busiest airport, the travel woes will linger for days.Thousands of people were stranded Monday morning at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where more than 1,000 flights were gro...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Portion of Lutz Lake Fern Road closed after crash involving motorcycle

TAMPA — A portion of Lutz Lake Fern Road is closed in northwest Hillsborough County following a crash involving a motorcycleHillsborough County deputies say the roadway is expected to be closed between Sunlake Boulevard and Cypress Green Drive for th...
Updated: 1 hour ago
St. Pete man and dog were constant companions, in life and now in death

St. Pete man and dog were constant companions, in life and now in death

ST. PETERSBURG -- For more than a decade, Gerald Rittinger’s dog kept him alive.The Air Force veteran died on Dec. 3 at age 77. He is survived by his wife, Jeanne, who said she would have lost him 14 years earlier if not for their yellow Labrador, Ze...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Advocates push orca breeding law as SeaWorld’s policy appears murky

Advocates push orca breeding law as SeaWorld’s policy appears murky

The announcement was rolled out to the world as a pledge. A promise.In March 2016 SeaWorld declared it would end killer whale breeding, making the orcas in its care in the United States and abroad its last generation to live in captivity.Later that y...
Updated: 2 hours ago
The government admits it studies UFOs. So about those Area 51 conspiracy theories.

The government admits it studies UFOs. So about those Area 51 conspiracy theories.

For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn’t really exist and that the U.S. government had no official interest in aliens or UFOs. Statements to the contrary, official-sounding people cautioned, were probably the musings of crackpots in tinfo...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rick and Tom podcast: Will Jon Gruden be the Bucs’ coach next year?

Rick and Tom podcast: Will Jon Gruden be the Bucs’ coach next year?

Jon Gruden will be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor tonight, but could it be more than just that as the Glazers may be looking for a new head coach come January? In their latest podcast, Rick Stroud and Tom Jones discuss whether Gruden would coac...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Missing Child Alert canceled for Homestead boy, 13

A Florida Missing Child Alert has been canceled for a 13-year-old Homestead boy.According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, John Noble-Sinclair had last seen Sunday in the area of 300 block of Southwest 4th Avenue.The case has been resolv...
Updated: 3 hours ago
LeBron wears one black shoe and one white shoe, speaks about Trump

LeBron wears one black shoe and one white shoe, speaks about Trump

WASHINGTON — LeBron James made a statement during an NBA game with his shoes — one black, one white, with the word "equality" in capital gold letters on the back of each.Then, after the game, James made a statement about President Donald Trump, sayin...
Updated: 3 hours ago