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Pinellas term limits plaintiffs are nearly strangers, but united in their cause

Before they filed a lawsuit together, one that could take politics in Pinellas County and put it through a juicer, the three plaintiffs barely knew each other.

One is an Orlando corrections supervisor who lives in the same south St. Petersburg bungalow where she was raised. Another is the former mayor of Tarpon Springs, the wife of a prominent Sponge Docks businessman. The third is an octogenarian ex-Navy man who retired here in the 1980s and owns a news website.

Their homes are as scattered across Pinellas as their political views. But they're in solid agreement on a single issue: Pinellas County commissioners should be subject to term limits. And if they have their way, four of the current seven commissioners could be forced from office.

The dispute dates to 1996, when a majority of Pinellas voters approved two four-year terms for county commissioners and constitutional officers. Tangled up in court for years, term limits for county-elected officials were eventually ruled illegal. Then in May, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling that upheld the right of voters to impose term limits.

Days after the court ruling, a local television station interviewed Maria Scruggs. The 55-year-old corrections supervisor told the camera what she is now telling the court — that four of the current Pinellas commissioners had overstayed their terms and should step down. Pinellas County's attorneys disagreed, saying that for various complex legal reasons, term limits couldn't be enforced here.

The interview caught the attention of H. Patrick Wheeler (the H is for Henry), who saw a potential ally and reached out, Scruggs said. He, too, believed that the county attorneys were wrong and was thinking of suing. Beverley Billiris, the former Tarpon Springs mayor, who says she knew Wheeler only in passing, joined the cause.

They filed their lawsuit in June and an amended complaint Jan. 10. Now they are waiting for the county's attorneys to respond.

"The three of us are not really that connected, we're only connected by this issue," Billiris told the Tampa Bay Times in July. Neither Billiris nor Wheeler would agree to be interviewed for this story, but both have spoken to the Times in the past about this case.

The three plaintiffs have something else in common: an enduring suspicion that something is rotten in the Pinellas County Commission.

To many people, term limits might seem like a remote issue — roughly as distant as debate over whether Congress should keep the filibuster — but to Scruggs, Billiris, and Wheeler, term limits mean fairness. And when county attorneys maintain that the two four-year terms that voters approved are not valid, the three of them see a power grab.

Two of the three share another bit of background: they ran unsuccessfully for commission seats that would be vacated if they win their suit.

Of the three plaintiffs, Billiris has the most direct experience with term limits. From 2004 to 2010, she was the mayor of Tarpon Springs, a position that term limits forced her to vacate. She turned to the County Commission, challenging incumbent Susan Latvala in the 2010 Republican primary.

Billiris was hugely outspent and lost the race with only 30 percent of the vote. She swears her involvement in the lawsuit has nothing to do with Latvala, one of the four commissioners who could be kicked out of office. It has been three years since she left politics and though she wouldn't rule out running for office again, she said she's enjoying the freedom from campaigning.

"I don't have a personal agenda. It's just wrong," she said. "I had term limits in this city and I stepped down. The whole thing just upsets me and it's just the arrogance of it."

Like Billiris, Scruggs is part of a lawsuit that names a Pinellas commissioner she ran against. Last year, she challenged Commissioner Ken Welch in the Democratic primary and lost by a wide margin. But this lawsuit, she maintains, is not about Welch.

Scruggs, who is black, said some members of the African-American community have questioned her decision to join the lawsuit when it could unseat Welch, the only black commissioner on the board. Most have been supportive, she said, but a few have been incredulous.

"Why did you take this on?" she remembers one man asking. "I said it was the right thing to do."

At 16, she wanted to be a cop or a lawyer, she said. The law still fascinates her. When Pinellas attorneys said term limits did not apply to the commissioners, she made phone calls to attorneys in Pinellas and other counties, requested public records, and sent a torrent of emails trying to get an explanation that made sense to her. None did.

"How do you simply say that that law doesn't apply to me?" she wondered.

Her sense that justice is on their side is so strong that she joined the lawsuit against the advice of her campaign advisers, who thought it might look bad. If they lose the lawsuit, she said, she's not sure how she'll trust the courts again.

But if they win, she has plans to run for Welch's seat.

"I think I have an obligation to run again for the District 7 seat when it's vacated," she said.

"Do I think I have a lot to contribute to this community? Absolutely positively. But you know, the people have to decide that's what they want."

For Wheeler, it is one of many causes he has taken up over the years and written about on his website, called East Lake Blister — "blister" being an accurate description of the editorial tone. At 82, he has a scolding manner, a shock of white hair and a preference for colorful ties.

He retired here in 1986, after serving as a submariner in the U.S. Navy and working for the CIA, he said. A registered Republican, Wheeler describes himself as a "constitutionalist."

A few months after the suit was filed, Billiris helped set up a committee called Save Pinellas to collect charitable donations for the plaintiffs' legal bills, which come to about $30,000, she said in July. Records show that Wheeler wrote a check for $1,000, but the suit's supporters claim he has since paid the entire bill.

"I voted for that (term limits) referendum and I'm very funny about my vote," he told the Times in September. "My vote is worth more than a lot of people think."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or 727-893-8779.

Pinellas term limits plaintiffs are nearly strangers, but united in their cause 01/27/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 27, 2013 10:48pm]
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