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Pinellas County commission votes to sue state over new election law

The lawsuit will target a provision that benefits State Rep. Chris Latvala in his bid for a county commission seat.
Members of the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners attend a regular board meeting on Tuesday, Feb 8, 2022, in Clearwater. On Tuesday, they voted to sue the state over its newly-signed election law.
Members of the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners attend a regular board meeting on Tuesday, Feb 8, 2022, in Clearwater. On Tuesday, they voted to sue the state over its newly-signed election law. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 26|Updated Apr. 26

Pinellas County commissioners voted Tuesday to sue the state over its new elections reform law, which includes a provision they say illegally targets Pinellas to accommodate the political ambitions of one state legislator.

On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that created an office within the executive branch to investigate election crime. The law includes a provision that requires county commissioners in single-member districts to run again for their seats following a redistricting process, which Pinellas finalized in December.

But the language included multiple exceptions so that Pinellas County is the only government affected in the state.

Pinellas County commissioner Karen Seel attends a regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb 8, 2022, in Clearwater.
Pinellas County commissioner Karen Seel attends a regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb 8, 2022, in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Due to the provision, District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel and District 7 Commissioner Rene Flowers must run again for their seats in November even though they have two years left in their four-year terms.

That works to the advantage of state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater. Last year, he filed to run for District 5 in 2024, when Seel, a fellow Republican, had planned to step down at the end of her sixth term. The law now allows him to run for District 5 this year when he is also term-limited out of the Florida House.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday, Seel said she had not yet decided whether she will run again in November to complete the last two years of what was to be her final four-year term. Latvala has a $100,435 head start on her since he began fundraising last year, according to treasurer reports.

“It’s just the greatest privilege to be able to serve the public,” Seel said at the meeting. “I’ve always wanted to make sure that I took the high road, that I did the right thing, and this all just makes me very sad.”

County attorney Jewel White said she believes the commission has cause to sue because the provision targets only Pinellas County but it was filed within a general bill instead of as a local bill. Local bills require notice and two public hearings, which was not provided in this case.

The commission voted 4-2 to sue the state over the provision, with commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters in opposition. Seel abstained.

“This is about right and wrong and a principle,” Commissioner Janet Long said. “A bully is a bully is a bully, and at what point do you say enough is enough.... This is a chip on our democracy.”

Peters questioned whether there was a conflict in the commission suing the state over the provision since Flowers has already filed to run for reelection in November.

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After the state bill with the language that affected her seat was introduced in February, Flowers said she filed paperwork to launch a campaign out of an abundance of caution in the event the bill passed into law.

White did not say she saw a conflict in Flowers’ involvement in the lawsuit. Peters also questioned the wisdom in challenging any part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ legislation considering the county has $30 million in appropriations lined up for next year’s budget.

“You sue the governor for one of his top priority bills, if you think he will not pull out the veto pen for every single appropriation that we received this year and every single appropriation that we’ll receive in the future, I think that’s being naïve,” Peters said.

But most commissioners said the legal challenge was necessary to defend democracy.

Commissioner Charlie Justice noted the “bare knuckle politics that we know are behind this legislation.” He said he was unconvinced by the argument that the provision was included to correct for redistricting changes.

About 16,000 voters, mostly in Clearwater and Seel’s District 5, were moved by the December redistricting process. No significant changes were made to Flowers’ District 7 that covers the county’s southern portion.

“The voters had a say, the voters elected our commissioners to a four-year term,” Justice said. “To say the power of the state can come in and cut a term of a local official in half just because they can is really, really dangerous I believe.”

With the staggered single-member seats, Eggers in District 4 and Peters in District 6 were already up for reelection in November before the law’s passage. Commissioner Pat Gerard, who represents the at-large District 2, was also already up for reelection.

State Rep. Chris Latvala
State Rep. Chris Latvala [ News Service of Florida ]

In a text exchange with the Times, Latvala on Tuesday again denied that he had any involvement in pushing the provision that allows him to run for his declared county seat two years earlier.

Latvala said although he is filed to run for Seel’s seat, he is still considering challenging Eggers in District 4, a fellow Republican, or Gerard, a Democrat, for the at-large District 2 seat. He did not say when or how he would decide which seat he was running for.

“I have always conducted myself in an ethical manner,” Latvala said. “My constituents who have elected me for eight years (in the Legislature) seemed to agree.”

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