Pinellas County Commissioner Chris Latvala will vote against the county’s list of legislative priorities next week, he told his colleagues during a work session Thursday.
It’s not because Latvala, a Republican former state representative who joined the commission in November, opposes any of the meat of the document, which the county prepares every year ahead of the state legislative session. He took no issue with any of the state laws the county plans to support, and he said he’d call his friends in Tallahassee to push for the county’s appropriation requests.
Latvala’s problem, he said, is with a set of “guiding principles” listed at the top of the document. Those include the first objective on the page: working to maintain the county’s home rule power.
State lawmakers have long preempted the autonomy of city and county governments by passing laws that supersede local ordinances on subjects including short-term rentals, coronavirus-related restrictions and masking rules. Latvala reminded his colleagues Thursday that he took part in some of those votes.
“My friends that are still in the Legislature, when I do call them to support our three budget projects, I don’t want them to remind me that I joined in with them in voting against some of those things,” he said.
The commissioner said in a phone interview Friday that he’d also voted in favor of some bills that preserved aspects of home rule. But he couldn’t abide the county’s generalized entreaty to protect home rule, he said.
“Just because I’m on the county commission, my views are not going to suddenly change overnight,” he said.
Latvala secured his seat on the commission last year following a state law change that only applied to Pinellas County. A provision tucked into a new Florida elections law moved up elections for two Pinellas commission seats by two years, forcing two commissioners to run halfway through their terms if they wanted to keep their jobs. One of them, Karen Seel, had already said the term she won in 2020 would be her last, and she opted not to run again. A county lawsuit challenging the provision failed.
Latvala was the only candidate to file for the seat by the end of qualifying last June, so he did not face voters and his name did not have to appear on the November ballot. He assumed Seel’s old seat just as he was term-limited out of his Florida House position.
Before bringing up home rule, Latvala said he couldn’t get behind another of the guiding principles listed on the county’s legislative program: supporting a fully funded Sadowski Trust Fund. Established by the state in 1992, the fund is supposed to support affordable housing projects across Florida. But lawmakers regularly raided it for other projects, many unrelated to affordable housing, although that practice ended with the passage of a 2021 law.
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“While I support the Sadowski Trust Fund, there were times I supported raiding the trust fund because we needed money, instead of raising taxes or whatever,” Latvala said. “The trust funds are where you get money from, especially when you’re in a budget crunch. Because unlike the feds, we have — Florida has to balance the budget.”
But it was Latvala’s position on home rule that prompted a question from County Commission Chairperson Janet Long.
“As you spend time on the County Commission, and you see how many things we are now responsible for ... do you think some of those times you voted against the home rule issues were because you hadn’t had, necessarily, a real experience in what it was like to serve on local government?” she said.
“No. I think it’s a difference in philosophy,” he said. ”And I don’t think it’s our job to tell the state government what to do.”
A moment later, he issued a reminder.
“It’s an honor to be here,” he said, “and I’m a county commissioner, not a state legislator.”