Nearly two decades after a Clearwater businessman led a campaign to place term limits on the Pinellas County Commission, the matter is before the courts again.
But the movement that made term limits a subject of national and local debate has largely fizzled, leaving a smaller group of people to carry the torch.
In Pinellas, that group includes three plaintiffs who in June sued four county commissioners, accusing them of exceeding the two four-year terms voters approved in 1996. It also includes a crew of people who regularly attend commission meetings, and write letters and emails voicing their displeasure that term limits never became law in Pinellas. Some are members of the tea party; others view the issue as non-partisan.
"Right now, we have a highly motivated, highly vocal, group of people on this issue," said Pinellas Commissioner Nancy Bostock. "But other people are not talking about it. It's really not very broad-based."
The lawsuit targets Commissioners Ken Welch, Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Karen Seel, all of whom have served more than eight years in office. The next court hearing in the case won't be held before the Nov. 6 election, creating questions about whether the law could be applied retroactively.
Seel is running unopposed. Welch faces Republican candidate William "Buck" Walz.
In the mid 1990s, when voters had already approved term limits for the Florida Legislature, Bostock volunteered for the campaign to bring them to the Pinellas County Commission. It was her first political issue, the beginning of a career that would take her from the School Board to county government.
But like many people who supported term limits then, she is less convinced of their usefulness now. In Tallahassee, restricting lawmakers to two four-year terms has led them to find ways around it, such as running for their colleagues' seats, and handed more power to lobbyists and staff.
"There was a lot of hope back in early '90s that it would have a more profound and positive impact on our government," she said. "But there has been a lot of office-swapping."
Fred Thomas, the founder of Pinch-A-Penny, who poured about $265,000 of his own money into getting term limits on the ballot in 1996, also has lessened his support. He still backs term limits, but not for all offices. And instead of eight-year limits for county commissioners, he proposes 12.
The new term limits activists include people like Barbara Haselden, who took up the issue after a recent Florida Supreme Court ruling upheld the right of voters to impose them on county government.
Haselden, who lives in St. Petersburg, voted for term limits 16 years ago, but that was the extent of her involvement. When she read that other counties, but not Pinellas, were complying with the ruling and imposing term limits, she was spurred to action.
"I think the professional politicians have been in too long," she said.
An opponent of a proposal for a light rail system, Haselden said it is an example of the kind of massive project that governments take on when people have been in office too long.
From his seat on the County Commission, where he has served since 2000, Welch said he has seen the same small group of people fight light rail, affordable housing and human services programs. The term-limits lawsuit "is just the latest tool in their toolbox to change the commission," he said.
In 1996, 73 percent of Pinellas County voters approved term limits. It's unclear how residents would vote now.
"The world is different than it was 16 years ago," Welch said. "I just think folks are focused on the challenges we face and term limits haven't been an issue."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected]