A citizen-led effort is underway to get a referendum on the November ballot asking voters whether to impose term limits on the Pinellas County Commission.
Friends of Pinellas County, the group sponsoring the initiative, must gather roughly 55,000 valid signatures, or 8 percent of registered voters as of the last general election, in order to get the question on the ballot, according to the county charter.
The group’s executive director, Barbara Haselden, said she sees it as a doable feat because Pinellas residents have endorsed term limits before.
In 1996, 73 percent of Pinellas voters approved a referendum for term limits on county commissioners and constitutional officers — sheriff, clerk of court, property appraiser, tax collector and supervisor of elections. But the rule was immediately challenged in court and never implemented amid legal wrangling that spanned through 2014.
The new petition seeks to impose limits of two consecutive four-year terms on county commissioners, but would not apply to the constitutional officers. The limits would apply beginning with the next term of sitting commissioners, according to the petition form, which was approved by Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus on Jan. 25. It would allow termed-out officials to run again after sitting out for four years.
“There is so much power in the incumbency that if you do not have term limits then you have what we’re seeing in Pinellas County, which is the people not being paid any attention to,” Haselden said. ”I just feel they have too many positions where they can continue to advocate their own personal biases and keep amassing more and more power.”
In October, Commissioner Dave Eggers, who is running for a third term in the November election, pushed his colleagues to consider placing a referendum on the ballot limiting commissioners to three terms, or 12 years.
“I think we owe it to our residents to give them an opportunity to choose whether they want term limits or not, give them another opportunity,” Eggers said during a meeting on Oct. 7. “It’s been 25 years since they had that vote. I don’t know what we’re afraid of.”
Only Commissioner Kathleen Peters supported the idea, and the effort died after a second discussion in December.
“In my opinion we have term limits because if the voters don’t like a commissioner that’s in office and they don’t think they’re performing properly, guess what, they’ll be voted out of office,” Commissioner Janet Long said during the Oct. 7 discussion.
A referendum can be placed on a ballot through the charter review commission, a citizen petition or by the county commission.
Residents have in recent months been pushing for the commission to pass an ordinance to place a term limit referendum on the ballot. Because commissioners declined to support the referendum, Haselden said she decided to launch the citizen petition with about a dozen core organizers.
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Haselden is an insurance agent whose No Tax for Tracks group led the opposition against the unsuccessful 2014 Greenlight Pinellas transportation tax referendum. She ran for county commission in 2018 with term limits as part of her platform, but lost the Republican primary to Peters.
Although some of the residents who have addressed the commissioners on the topic were also outspoken critics of the 2020 mask mandate during the pandemic, Haselden said this is not a spillover from coronavirus mandate opposition.
She sees it more as an outshoot of residents feeling like they are not being heard. She pointed to the 2014 transportation tax she helped defeat, which would have brought in an estimated $130 million annually to expand the county’s bus system and build light rail between Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
After the tax proposal failed, county officials have prioritized transit-oriented development and broken ground on a bus rapid transit line between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. Haselden sees that as county officials not honoring the spirit of the referendum defeat.
“We played by the rules just like people in 1996 played by the rules and yet we were basically ignored,” she said.
Pinellas and Pasco counties don’t have term limits but Hillsborough County does, as well as the cities of Clearwater, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science at University of South Florida, said the same impacts term limits have had on the state level apply to local government. It’s true, he said, that term limits open the door for new blood and fresh ideas and can ensure younger and diverse people have a chance without the burden of defeating incumbency.
But Benton said term limits can also drain local governments of officials with institutional knowledge and expertise and bring in more people who are inexperienced on local issues. The restrictions can also deprive voters the right to retain officials they want to keep in office, he said.
“I see the same negative and positive impact on the local level that I see at the state level, no less, no more,” Benton said.
In light of the citizen petition moving forward, Eggers said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that he intends to raise the issue for a third time with his commission colleagues at their next work session Feb. 17. If commissioners placed the measure on the ballot it would save residents the trouble of having to garner 55,000 signatures by the summer, he said.
Several commissioners noted that, over the years, residents have not advocated in force for term limits. The last charter review commission that convened in 2016 discussed the topic but declined to bring a proposal to the commission.
But Eggers said he thinks it’s something voters have a right to voice their opinion on again. In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court held in a Brevard County case that term limits for county commissioners are constitutional, which helped settle the challenge that arose from the 1996 Pinellas County referendum.
The process would require citizens to gather signatures, have them certified by the Supervisor of Elections and for the county commission to then place the question on the ballot through a resolution. The Supervisor of Elections requires language for the November ballots to be finalized by the end of August.
“I think (residents) realize a petition is the only way to get it done, but it’s a herculean effort,” Eggers said.