In light of a Florida Supreme Court decision on term limits, plaintiffs in a new lawsuit want a judge to remove four long-serving Pinellas County commissioners from office and disqualify two of them from this year's ballot. But eliminating voters' options now won't serve democracy. Voters can always enforce term limits the old-fashioned way — at the ballot box.
In 1996, Pinellas County voters approved a charter amendment limiting terms for county officials to eight years, only to see the initiative nullified in 2003 by a Florida Supreme Court order. Then two months ago in a separate case, the state's highest court upheld term limits for commissioners in Broward and Sarasota, two other charter counties. Now the debate is whether the new ruling is prospective and only applies to new term-limit measures, which is the interpretation of Pinellas County's attorney; or retrospective, which is the position of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The three plaintiffs — Beverley Billiris, H. Patrick Wheeler and County Commission candidate Maria Scruggs — have a right to raise the question, even if their cause is misguided. Term limits are no cure for what ails the political process, as evidenced by what has happened in Tallahassee in the dozen years since eight-year limits took effect for state officeholders. For sure, Floridians have more chances to elect fresh faces to the Legislature. But that purported benefit is eclipsed by the consequences of a continual revolving door on representative democracy. The lack of institutional knowledge among elected officials in the state capital has dramatically shifted power to the lobbying corps and the special interests.
All four of Pinellas County's long-serving commissioners — Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch — won re-election to four-year terms when term limits were not in effect in Pinellas County due to the 2003 court ruling. Latvala and Morroni are next up for re-election in 2014. Seel is otherwise assured a return to the commission because she drew no opponent this election cycle. Welch faces Scruggs in the Democratic primary for District 7, with the winner to face Republican William "Buck" Walz.
And there in is the biggest flaw with the plaintiffs' proposed remedy, beyond just the narrow embrace of term limits. A rushed decision to alter this year's ballot or clear the commission will do more harm to the democratic process than good. Stripping Welch and Seel from the ballot now, after the qualification deadline has passed so no other candidates can jump in, will ensure a primary victory for Scruggs and require a special election to replace Seel. This controversy has been 16 years in the making. Resolution need not happen overnight. The commission, for example, is contemplating whether to put a new term-limit measure on the ballot. The plaintiffs have a right to their day in court, but not to rigging voters' choices in the short term.