CLEARWATER — Ringed by reporters outside a courtroom in early May, H. Patrick Wheeler left little doubt that if he lost a lawsuit he brought against four Pinellas County commissioners, he would appeal. He was almost sure it wouldn't come to that.
But a day after a circuit judge sided with the commissioners, ruling that they are not bound by the term limits that voters approved in 1996, Wheeler and his two fellow plaintiffs sounded considerably less certain. In a letter the plaintiffs' attorney, John Shahan, sent to reporters on Friday afternoon, the group put out a public call for financial aid:
"The Plaintiffs are exploring whether the thousands of voters past and present who they sought to protect care enough about their Home Rule Charter powers and Precious Right To Vote, to financially support further action of the three (3) Plaintiffs and their counsel."
The plaintiffs filed suit last June, trying to remove four commissioners — John Morroni, Susan Latvala, Ken Welch, and Karen Seel — from office and bar them from seeking re-election. The plaintiffs argued that these commissioners, all of whom have been in office for more than 12 years, had violated term limits. But on Thursday, a circuit judge ruled that the two four-year term limits that voters approved more than a decade ago do not apply to the commissioners because of a 2002 decision by the state Supreme Court.
At the beginning of their legal journey, the plaintiffs and their supporters set up a committee called Save Pinellas, which records show has collected about $2,000. But half of what they raised came from Wheeler, and almost all of it has gone to pay their legal fees. According to Maria Scruggs, one of the plaintiffs, some supporters have written checks directly to the group's attorney. On Friday, she said the group has yet to discuss with its attorney how much it would cost to pursue an appeal.
Whether the group files an appeal is not necessarily contingent on whether it gets financial backing, Scruggs said.
"That's just the goal," she said.
In their statement, the plaintiffs said the judge's ruling did not address "issues of misfeasance, nonfeasance and malfeasance" that "may require another forum to be properly resolved."