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Clerk sues Pinellas County for spending on election lawsuit

Ken Burke questions whether Pinellas can use public dollars to challenge Florida’s election law.
Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, left, sits next to St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch at an event in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24, 2022. Burke is suing the county commission over whether his office should pay expenses for a lawsuit.
Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, left, sits next to St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch at an event in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24, 2022. Burke is suing the county commission over whether his office should pay expenses for a lawsuit. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 18|Updated May 18

Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke has sued the county, questioning whether it can use public dollars to pay for its recent lawsuit challenging a portion of Florida’s new election law.

The disputed provision uniquely affects the Board of County Commissioners, giving state Rep. Chris Latvala a quicker path to the commission seat he is seeking as he departs the Legislature.

In Burke’s lawsuit, filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court on Monday, he argues it is established common law that public agencies “must presume legislation affecting their duties to be valid” and don’t have standing to challenge a statute.

As the county’s accountant, Burke questioned whether it would be legal for him to release public funds for the lawsuit expenses because it’s not clear how Pinellas County, as opposed to the affected commissioners, needs a court determination on the new state law.

He is asking a judge to determine whether he should pay the litigation costs, and if not, then prevent the county from making further expenditures.

Pinellas has so far spent $571.50 to file the April 29 lawsuit and $15.96 to obtain records from other counties for research, according to invoices provided to the Tampa Bay Times by Pinellas County.

In a statement to the Times, Commission Chairperson Charlie Justice said officials “feel that we are pursuing the proper course of action based on a thorough legal analysis.”

“Personally I am disappointed that (Burke) would pursue this litigious path,” Justice said. “He just presented to the Commission on our outstanding audit and mentioned no objections.”

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

As a result, District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel and District 7 Commissioner Rene Flowers must run again for their seats in November, two years into their four years terms.

The language included multiple exceptions so that Pinellas County is the only Florida government affected.

On April 26, the Board of County Commissioners voted 4-2 to sue the state over the provision they say illegally targets Pinellas to accommodate the political ambitions of Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. Commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voted no and Seel abstained.

Last year, Latvala 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 in November, when he will be term-limited out of the Florida House.

Pinellas County sued then-Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Attorney General Ashley Moody in Leon County Circuit Court three days later, asking the judge to prevent the state officials from enforcing the law’s provision.

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Candidates must file qualifying paperwork between June 13 and June 17 in order to get on the November ballot, so Pinellas County asked for an expedited response.

In its complaint, the county argued that the provision targeting Pinellas County, as opposed to the state as a whole, amounts to a local bill, which the Florida Constitution prevents the Legislature from passing.

Residents elected commissioners to four-year terms in 2020, so their votes “will not be given full force and effect” if those officials have to run again in 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The Pinellas County Charter also mandates staggered terms for commissioners, which will be disrupted by the provision, the lawsuit states.

Single-member district commissioners 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.

If the provision remains, five of the seven commissioners will be up for election in 2022 and six of the seven will have to run in 2032 after the next redistricting process.

A hearing on Pinellas County’s request for an injunction is scheduled for Monday in Tallahassee.

On Tuesday, Burke requested the ability to intervene in the Leon County case so that he can file a motion asking the judge to halt the litigation until the Pinellas County court decides on the legality of the county’s expenditures.

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