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The looming legal specter for Pinellas County: term limits

They remade themselves in Palm Beach County this week.

There was a changing of the guard in Polk, and a fresh face in Sarasota.

Meanwhile, the names remain the same in Pinellas County.

While local governments all around Florida are dealing with the ramifications of term limits, Pinellas is marching forward as if voters here never approved a referendum, and the state Supreme Court didn't just uphold the constitutionality of term limits.

It's an interesting stance the county has taken. It is also potentially explosive.

"Am I concerned about this?" Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch mused a day after winning his primary. "Yes, I'm concerned about the possibility that four commissioners who have been elected by Pinellas County residents could potentially be removed and replaced by Gov. Scott appointees."

That's the doomsday scenario.

Or poetic justice.

The difference depends on your perspective.

At issue is whether a 1996 referendum overwhelmingly approved by Pinellas voters (by 73 to 27 percent) should be enforced retroactively now that the Supreme Court has essentially reversed itself and declared term limits legal.

The county's attorneys are arguing that Pinellas has some unique circumstances and is not subject to the same rules and interpretations the rest of the state is facing.

I do not pretend to understand the legal nuances involved, but I'm getting the feeling that the county's defense is about as potent as the Rays' offense.

A ruling handed down by a Duval County judge last week seemed to shoot a lot of holes in the same kind of arguments Pinellas County folks have been raising in recent months.

The judge said the term limits applied retroactively to Duval's clerk of courts, as opposed to the clock starting with the Supreme Court ruling in May. That doesn't bode well for Pinellas.

Local officials are also pushing the idea that the amendment was never officially introduced to the county charter after the referendum, and thus is not applicable today.

In other words, they're saying we don't have to follow that law because we screwed up by not doing what we were supposed to do 16 years ago. It's an interesting defense, but the judge in Duval didn't seem impressed by a vaguely similar argument in that case.

So what we have now is four commissioners (Welch, Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Karen Seel) and three constitutional officers (elections supervisor Deborah Clark, clerk of court Ken Burke and tax collector Diane Nelson) who could be affected by a lawsuit filed by three Pinellas residents in June.

"It is simply a matter of the law,'' said one of the plaintiffs, Maria Scruggs, who was soundly beaten by Welch in the Democratic primary Tuesday.

"I would be amazed to see a Pinellas County judge issue a ruling that is contrary to the Florida Supreme Court, and rulings from other lower courts in different counties.''

Personally, I'm not a fan of term limits. And the idea that the most moderate members of the commission are all at risk is almost too frightening to consider.

But, at this point, opinions don't matter. And fear of Rick Scott's zealotry is also moot.

This is now a legal issue. And I'm not sure Pinellas County is on the correct side of the law.

The looming legal specter for Pinellas County: term limits 08/15/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 9:26pm]
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