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Residents file suit to revive Pinellas term limits

ST. PETERSBURG — A 16-year dispute over term limits is resurfacing, stoked by a new attempt to eject a handful of Pinellas County commissioners who have been in office for more than a decade.

Three Pinellas residents — one of whom is running for the commission — filed a lawsuit on Tuesday charging that four commissioners have exceeded the two four-year terms approved by county voters in 1996.

If it were to succeed, the suit could force out Karen Seel, Kenneth Welch, Susan Latvala, and Chairman John Morroni, who are regarded as the more moderate members of the seven-person board. All four were elected in 2000, though Seel was appointed a year earlier, then won election.

When the board voted to remove fluoride from the county's water last year, three of them voted in opposition.

Term limits have a long and complicated history in Pinellas, where a large majority of voters approved them in 1996, only to see the Florida Supreme Court strike them down as unconstitutional six years later. In May, the Supreme Court changed its mind and upheld voter-approved term limits as legitimate.

John Shahan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the case represents an attempt to force the County Commission to follow the court's May ruling.

"We're asking that the judge basically order that they be removed from office," Shahan said. "And that if they don't resign on their own, then we're asking for an order from the court that the rule of law be enforced."

Also on Tuesday, county attorney James Bennett weighed in with his interpretation of the Supreme Court's ruling. Bennett argued that the May opinion does not affect the County Commission.

For Pinellas to term limit its commissioners, either the board would have to approve a charter change or voters would have to approve a referendum, he said.

One of the plaintiffs, Maria Scruggs, a St. Petersburg resident, is challenging Welch in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary. Another plaintiff, Beverley Billiris, a Republican from Tarpon Springs, ran against Latvala in 2010 and lost. H. Patrick Wheeler, who is also part of the suit, is the editor of a local website, EastLakeBlister.com.

Scruggs said that the possibility she could benefit from term limits was unconnected to her involvement in the suit.

"In my opinion, this was a prime example of voters' will being suppressed," she said. "And one of the facts that I'm actually running on is it's time the people's will is heard."

Welch, who was first elected to represent District 7 in South Pinellas in 2000, said he opposes term limits.

"I think voters have the choice of evaluating their leadership and selecting new leadership at every election," he said on Wednesday. "And I think Tallahassee and other counties across the state provide ample evidence that term limits do not necessarily lead to better government."

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

Residents file suit to revive Pinellas term limits 06/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 12:06am]
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