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Term limits okayed, but lawsuit remains // COUNTY REFERENDUM

It took more than two years and almost $280,000 to make it happen, but Pinellas County voters Tuesday approved a referendum that will limit county commissioners and constitutional officers to two consecutive four-year terms.

The overwhelming margin of victory mirrored term limits referendums in other cities and counties across the country held during the past few years.

"This is fantastic," said Fred Thomas, the former Clearwater city commissioner who spent about $265,000 of his own money on the Eight Is Enough campaign. "The people have spoken."

Thomas said the vote showed both parties, which did not endorse the referendum, were out of touch with voters.

But stay tuned, because the courts may have something to say on the legality of the county charter referendum. It is still the subject of a legal challenge launched by a Clearwater resident and recently joined by the constitutional officers: the sheriff, the supervisor of elections, the clerk of court, the tax collector and the property appraiser.

The Clearwater resident, Clair Johnson, argued that the referendum is unconstitutional. Those arguments were rejected by a judge in September, but the judge recently agreed to hear new arguments from the constitutional officers.

Those arguments, which center on a state constitutional provision prohibiting the county from changing the "status" of the constitutional officers, should be heard within the next several weeks.

The suit asks the judge to stop the county commissioners from carrying out their administrative duty of placing the referendum in the county charter.

"As property appraiser, my first responsibility is to get the tax roll out," said Property Appraiser Jim Smith. "But as a constitutional officer, I have a duty to protect the Constitution and the county charter when I see it being violated."

The lawyer for the constitutional officers recently presented Tax Collector W. Fred Petty with a bill for $5,525 for the work he did persuading the judge to allow them into the case.

Petty says he will pay this first bill himself, but any more work done by the $125-an-hour lawyer will be paid for by the taxpayers.

Thomas, who already has spent at least $30,000 of his own money on lawyers, says he will fight the suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

If the referendum survives legal challenges, Pinellas will be the second Florida county to place term limits on its officers and the fifth to place term limits on its county commissioners.

The referendum will not prohibit two-term incumbents from running for a different county office or sitting out a few years, then running for the same office again.