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As term-limit plan makes ballot, it faces legal fight

Just when Fred Thomas and his supporters gathered enough signatures Friday to put a Pinellas term-limit referendum on the Nov. 5 election ballot, a prominent Clearwater law firm sued to stop it.

Thomas, a former Clearwater city commissioner, heads a group called Eight is Enough. The group wants to limit county commissioners, the sheriff, tax collector and other Pinellas officials to eight consecutive years in office.

On Friday, Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles, who could not run for re-election if the proposal were in force, certified that the group had turned in the 48,705 voter signatures required to force a referendum.

It was a moment of satisfaction for Thomas, who successfully pushed for term limits for the Clearwater City Commission. Thomas said Friday that he eventually hopes to lead a fight for statewide term limites.

But now it faces a legal challenge at home.

A lawsuit filed Friday by Clair Johnson calls the term-limit proposal invalid and seeks an injunction to keep it off the November ballot.

Pinellas County government is controlled by a "Home Rule" charter approved in 1980 by voters and the Legislature. The term-limit proposal seeks to amend two articles of that charter, but does so in ways that conflict with another article of the charter, the suit says.

"If passed by referendum, the amendment would create an irreconcilable conflict in the charter which could only be cured by litigation and further charter amendment," the suit says.

For one thing, the suit says, Article II of the charter forbids the county "under any circumstances" to change the status of public officials specified in the Florida Constitution.

The county sheriff, clerk of court, property appraiser, tax collector and supervisor of elections are known as constitutional officers because their powers and duties are outlined in the state Constitution.

County commissioners are not constitutional officers, but Article III of the Pinellas Home Rule charter says their election and term of office "shall be in accordance with general law."

This provision makes "general law," not the home rule charter, paramount in controlling the election of county commissioners, the suit says. And no general law in Florida imposes term limits.

Thomas declined to discuss the legal merits of the suit, saying his attorneys would address them.

But he suggested that the suit was driven by a hidden agenda.

Clair Johnson is the wife of Timothy A. Johnson Jr., a senior partner in the Clearwater law firm of Johnson, Blakely, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns. Johnson specializes in representing clients before municipal and county government.

"Tim Johnson makes his living off long-term politicians. He has invested a lifetime in developing relationships with elected officials to get what he wants for his clients," Thomas said. "He has a vested interest in not having term limits."

Neither Clair nor Tim Johnson was available for comment. But Marion Hale, the attorney for Johnson, Blakely who filed the suit, scoffed at Thomas' response.

"Tim Johnson has a vested interest in good government. Tim Johnson has a vested interest in not having an unconstitutional and invalid amendment to the County Charter," Hale said. "And Mr. Thomas apparently has lost sight that Mrs. Johnson, not Mr. Johnson, is the plaintiff in this case."

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