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Term limit exemption expanded by ruling

For the moment, Pinellas County commissioners can relax. A court has ruled they are not subject to term limits approved by voters.

A Pinellas Circuit Court judge has ruled that a 1996 referendum question that sought to limit commissioners and the county's other elected officials to eight years in office is unconstitutional.

The order closes the book on seven years of court wranglings and allows commissioners Bob Stewart and Barbara Sheen Todd to seek re-election in 2004, if they wish.

In a September ruling, Judge Douglas Baird adopted the Florida Supreme Court's 2002 decision that found constitutional officers _ the sheriff, the property appraiser, the supervisor of elections, the clerk of the court and the tax collector _ could not be limited by the county's local charter because their authority ultimately came from a special act of the state Legislature.

Baird added commissioners to his decision, because they were part of the same ballot question.

Attorneys for the Eight Is Enough, the group that led the drive to put term limits on the ballot, had 30 days to appeal the decision but chose not to do so.

"The law on that is you can't split a ballot question," County Attorney Susan Churuti said. "If part of it is unconstitutional, then the whole question is thrown out."

But the ruling hardly ends the debate.

Churuti pointed out that the courts never actually ruled on term limits being constitutional for county commissioners, just on constitutional officers. The commissioners simply got off by association.

Fred Thomas, chairman of the Eight is Enough group, did not return calls seeking comment. Michael Hooker, a Tampa attorney representing the group, said he has not spoken with his client about the decision and declined to comment.

In 1996, Eight Is Enough gathered more than 48,000 signatures to put the term-limit question on the ballot.

Clair Johnson, the wife of a prominent Clearwater attorney, sued to try to keep it off the ballot, but a judge ruled against her, and 72 percent of county voters decided in favor of the measure.

Later, Pinellas County's five constitutional officers took up the fight. The Circuit Court and an appeals court ruled the referendum was fair.

But in May 2002, the Florida Supreme Court took a broader look at whether a charter county could impose term limits on constitutional officers, whose authority was created through a special act of the legislature.

The Florida Supreme Court found the local charter lacked the authority. The only way to change that would be by another special act, or by an amendment to the Florida Constitution. By a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the term limits imposed by the referendum on Nov. 5, 1996, were unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court directed the Circuit Court to take the case up again and Baird adopted the decision.

The ruling could have the most impact on Stewart, who has served on the board since 1994 and is up for re-election in 2004.

Although he has yet to formally decide if he will seek another term, Stewart said the court ruling gives him the option.

"It certainly helps me in one way," Stewart said. "It all hinged on the legal interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling. Until Judge Baird made his rendering, there were no options."

Todd's term also ends in 2004. She's served since 1996 and said she expected to be affected by term limits. Todd said she chose not to seek another term based on those limits. She's since entered the race for U.S. Senate in 2004 and has no plans to reconsider her county seat.

"That's why I said I would not run," Todd said. "I just decided to keep my word because I made it public."

But Todd said the voters have a referendum on term limits every time a candidate runs for office.

"I think the people decide that, if they vote you up or down," Todd said.

_ Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4162 or