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Term limits for Pinellas commissioners won’t make fall ballot

Supporters of a referendum on the issue were unable to collect enough signatures in time, but now their focus changes.
Last October, Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers unsuccessfully pushed his colleagues to initiate a referendum limiting commissioners to three terms, or 12 years. Eggers’ effort failed again in December and February. The board is pictured at its Feb. 8 meeting.
Last October, Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers unsuccessfully pushed his colleagues to initiate a referendum limiting commissioners to three terms, or 12 years. Eggers’ effort failed again in December and February. The board is pictured at its Feb. 8 meeting. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 16|Updated Aug. 16

A citizen-led effort to get a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot asking whether to impose term limits on the Pinellas County Commission did not obtain the signatures needed in time to get the measure in front of voters this year.

After getting its petition form approved by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections on Jan. 25, Friends of Pinellas County was working with a tight deadline dictated by the county charter. The group needed to gather about 55,000 valid signatures, or 8% of registered voters as of the last general election, have them verified, and get the proposed charter amendment approved by the county commission and sent to the elections supervisor by Tuesday.

Barbara Haselden, the group’s executive director, said volunteers collected “thousands and thousands” of signatures but could not provide an exact total. Without paid canvassers, she said the feat was too burdensome within the timeframe.

But Haselden said the exercise served as a read of the political climate as activists now look to the commission election, where term limits are also a campaign issue.

Term limits activist Barbara Haselden of St. Petersburg, pictured at a Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners meeting Feb. 8, said collecting enough signatures in the required timeframe was too burdensome.
Term limits activist Barbara Haselden of St. Petersburg, pictured at a Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners meeting Feb. 8, said collecting enough signatures in the required timeframe was too burdensome. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“The thing that came out of this was the awareness of term limits and how important it is on the county commission and who was for it and who was against it,” said Haselden, also president of the St. Petersburg Republican Club.

Both Republicans running for commission District 2 in the Aug. 23 primary support term limits. Palm Harbor Special Fire Control & Rescue Commissioner Debbie Buschman and Escot Bus Lines owner Brian Scott are running to challenge incumbent Democrat Pat Gerard in the Nov. 8 election.

If the Republican primary winner defeats Gerard in November, there will be a new commission majority supporting term limits.

Last October, Commissioner Dave Eggers unsuccessfully pushed his colleagues to initiate a referendum limiting commissioners to three terms, or 12 years. The charter allows for referendums to be placed on a ballot by a citizen petition, the county commission or charter review commission.

Eggers’ effort failed again in December when only fellow Republican commissioner Kathleen Peters supported it. Eggers brought it up a third time in February in order to save Haselden’s group from the “Herculean effort” of having to gather signatures, but only Peters and Commissioner Charlie Justice, a Democrat, backed him.

State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, will walk into the District 5 seat being vacated by retiring Commissioner Karen Seel in November as he faces no challenger in the race.

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Latvala said he would support Eggers’ three-term limit proposal. Eggers, who is running for a third term this year in District 4, faces Republican primary challenger Heather Aynne Vernillo, who also supports term limits. There is no Democrat in the race.

On Tuesday, Gerard said elections serve as de facto term limits because residents get the opportunity to vote incumbents out. She said the issue has been raised by a vocal minority, and it is not a topic being brought up to her regularly by residents.

“I think if either of my opponents wins in November, we will have a lot more to worry about than term limits,” said Gerard, who is running for a third term. “They are both very conservative and I think they would probably undo quite a bit of what we’ve done in the last eight years.”

Haselden’s campaign noted that, in 1996, 73 percent of Pinellas voters approved term limits for county commissioners and constitutional officers. However, the charter was not changed before lawsuits were filed challenging the rule. Legal wrangling spanned through 2014 and term limits were never implemented.

The petition led by Haselden’s group proposed limits of two consecutive four-year terms on commissioners but not constitutional officers. She said the request still stands, but now it’s back to the politicians for a future election.

“All we’re asking the county commission to do is put it back on the ballot,” Haselden said.

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