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.