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Pinellas County term limits case goes to court

Nearly one year after it was filed, a lawsuit challenging the right of the four longest-serving Pinellas County commissioners to stay in office is getting its day in court.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer is scheduled to hear the case at 1:30 p.m. today at the Clearwater courthouse. The suit, filed last year by three Pinellas residents, claims that commissioners Ken Welch, Karen Seel, Susan Latvala and John Morroni have overstayed the two four-year terms that voters approved in 1996. By now, the four commissioners have been in office for at least 12 years, or three terms.

County attorneys see no problem with their long tenure because they say the term limits law never went into effect.

The only thing the two sides can agree on is that the case in Pinellas is unusual.

Voters in a handful of Florida counties such as Broward and Polk approved term limits for commissioners and constitutional officers, but for years they were ignored because the state Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Last May, the court reversed itself, and counties began reviving term limits and blocking people from seeking re-election.

Not so in Pinellas, where county attorneys say the term limits that 72 percent of voters approved are effectively moot. Unlike in other counties that put term limits into their charters, Pinellas officials believed they were unconstitutional and asked a judge for permission to keep them out of the governing document.

The three plaintiffs — Maria Scruggs, Beverley Billiris and H. Patrick Wheeler — find that reasoning suspicious. All of them voted for term limits in 1996 and believe that even if the referendum never made it into the county's charter, it's still law.

Scruggs and Billiris have run unsuccessful campaigns to unseat two of the commissioners.

When the plaintiffs filed the suit last year, they hoped it would be decided in time to block Welch and Seel from seeking re-election. But the case has dragged on, slowed by problems with the plaintiffs' initial filing, and Welch and Seel easily won fourth terms in November.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County term limits case goes to court 05/01/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 11:31pm]
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