As four of the five Sarasota County commissioners press forward with their effort to secure a new 12-year reprieve from voter-approved term limits, they are looking for plausible fig leaves to cover their self-interested battle against their constituents.
It isn't easy.
Right now, 8-year term limits are in the charter and will become enforceable if -- as expected -- the state Supreme Court in the coming months rules such limits constitutional. But we don't know for sure which way the Supreme Court will rule. Commissioners are citing the need for a new referendum, and quick, to save them from what they call "limbo."
One justification for a new referendum is the alleged need to change Sarasota's limits from eight to 12 years to be in line with Broward County's voter-approved term limits law which was unanimously ruled constitutional by the Fourth District Court of Appeals in August. However, the 4th DCA decision does not even discuss the number of terms permitted. The point of law is whether charter, or "home rule," counties have the constitutional right to choose term limits for their commissions in the same manner in which they choose between other arrangements, such as single-member vs. at-large districts. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with number of terms.
In fact, of the 10 charter counties with term limits, nine of them have 8-year limits. If any county needs to get in line, it's Broward! But then again, home rule is not about being in line with other counties; it is about customization. It is about, well, home rule.
Another justification is that it is not entirely clear -- uh oh, more limbo! -- what will happen to the one commissioner the term limits law applies to in 2012, Jon Thaxton. Thaxton has chosen (repeat: chosen) to run again in spite of the fact that it is likely that he will not be able to take office after the Supreme Court rules. This is an antisocial decision by Thaxton, as not only does it violate the popular voter-approved term limits laws, but it also makes other potential candidates reluctant to join the race. Limbo!
Of course, this confusion is only confusion that Thaxton is choosing to create. Making it worse, there are whispers that Thaxton or other commissioners might sue the voters if not permitted to hold office, even if the Supreme Court does rule term limits constitutional. County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh has explicitly mentioned this possibility.
A spokesperson for Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent told the Englewood Sun that in her nearly 11 years as supervisor of elections, she has never been sued by anyone she declared ineligible to run for public office. But Thaxton may choose to be the first.
As a commissioner in 2005, Thaxton chose not to appeal the local judge's decision that county term limits where unconstitutional. But in 2011, he may choose to try to evade a Supreme Court decision that county commission term limits are constitutional.
Such choices expose what the majority of commissioners are really after. They are not worried about "limbo." In fact, they are more than willing to create it in order to keep their cozy positions in defiance of the voters.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: On Nov. 15, the commission will hold a required hearing on their plan to ditch voter-approved 8-year term limits. Be there!