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Court gives Pinellas a painful civics lesson: Majority means nothing

Back in 1996, a group of Pinellas County voters circulated petitions to impose eight-year term limits on the county's elected officials.

More than 48,000 people signed the petition. When the resulting election was held, term limits were approved by 72 percent of the people.

The voters' wishes were crystal clear:

Eight years and out.

But Pinellas County's politicians did not like the new rule. So they used the taxpayers' own money to fight it in court.

The elected officials argued that even though Pinellas County has operated under a county charter, approved by the voters in the first place, those same voters could not go back and impose term limits.

Three times, lower courts ruled for the citizens.

But the public officials kept appealing.

Finally, last year, the public officials won a 4-3 ruling from the Florida Supreme Court declaring that nope, the voters couldn't do it.

That ruling covered the sheriff, clerk of court, property appraiser, tax collector and elections supervisor.

Now the other shoe has dropped. The courts also have thrown out term limits even for the Pinellas County Commission, based on last year's precedent.

After all, the citizens' petition had lumped everybody in together. So if term limits were invalid for some, they were invalid for all.

The citizens group that supported term limits, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall after last year's loss (Many, many take ill at pols' win?), didn't even bother to appeal.

So the County Commission is off the hook too. The victory of Pinellas County's officeholders over the express wishes of the taxpayers is complete.

Clearly, there are times when a majority vote can be wrong, and the principled stand is to oppose that majority.

A majority cannot vote away the rights of a minority. For example, the white majority in the racist South did not have the right to trample the rights of black people.

Under our First Amendment, the "government" _ which, after all, is simply a creation of the majority _ is not supposed to establish religion. The majority sect cannot use the government to cram its religion down a minority's throat.

Good rules.

But this case, there were no "rights" to be violated. A public office possesses no "rights" that can be violated by the majority.

Sheriff Everett Rice, who is retiring when his current term ends in 2004, is one of the incumbents who fought term limits all the way. Some of the other elected officials joined and dropped out of the case as it dragged along.

Rice has defended his court fight as "simply trying to protect the independence of the office of sheriff." But that is exactly wrong. Neither the office of sheriff, nor any of the others, ought in any way to be "independent" of the voters.

Even the Supreme Court ruling against the citizens was not a slam dunk. The ruling was 4-3, and the three dissenters made a much better case. Justice Harry Lee Anstead wrote there was "no legal justification" for the majority's conclusion.

In opposing term limits, incumbent politicians often use some variation of the same lame cliche. "We already have term limits," they like to say. "It's called the ballot box."

But that is a big fat fib. It is a big fat fib because incumbents have an unfair advantage over challengers. Money runs our political process. Money flocks to incumbents.

Consider this: The last incumbent member of the Pinellas County Commission to be defeated by a challenger was John Chesnut Jr., who was ousted by Sallie Parks in 1992. The last before that was in 1984. One upset per decade is not exactly evidence of a vibrant, competitive democracy.

The main perpetrators of this court case are retiring. The rest of Pinellas' incumbents kept their names off the case, but all of them will savor the benefits.

All of them should at least have the grace, for the rest of their individual careers, not to moan about why voters are cynical about government, nor why more "good people" don't take the trouble to run for public office.

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