Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pinellas citizens continue to challenge corrupt commissioners

According to a 2012 study, Florida is the most corrupt state in the United States based on the number of state officials convicted on federal public corruption charges..

"Florida faces a corruption crisis that threatens the state's reputation, its economy and its ability to attract new jobs and capital," wrote study authors Dan Krassner and Ben Wilcox.

This should come as no surprise to Pinellas County residents, who are governed by four county commissioners in defiance of the county's voter-approved 8-year term limits law. After the term limits amendment was approved by 73% of voters in 1996, commissioners refused to insert the amendment into the county charter even after it was validated by a district court in 1999 and the state Supreme Court in 2012.

That it was their duty to do so is beyond question. Per charter Article VI Sec. 6-02 (3): "If approved by a majority of those electors voting on the amendment at the general election, the amendment shall become effective on the date specified in the amendment, or, if not so specified, on January 1 of the succeeding year." While a court has the power to invalidate an amendment, there is no leeway here for commissioners alone to refuse to accept the vote of the people.

After a commissioner-friendly local court refused to grant relief, Pinellas citizens are now appealing to the Second District Court of Appeals to have their votes finally counted. On Sept. 30, appellants H. Patrick Wheeler and Maria Scruggs filed their Initial Brief to the Lakeland court.

The filing is against Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Kenneth Welch and Karen Seel, the four commissioners who cling to their power and paychecks in defiance of law. Among other things, the brief documents their ill-gotten gains, including annual salaries of close to $100,000 when including expenses. It also points out the commissioners are using taxpayer money to invalidate the clearly expressed will of those same taxpayers.

The appellants are soliciting donations for legal expense. Please help. Checks can be sent to John Shahan, PA, 536 East Tarpon Avenue #3, Tarpon Springs, FL, 34689 please mark check “For Term Limits Expenses."

Let's show Pinellas County commissioners that crime doesn't pay.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Smoking gun: Pinellas commissioners conceded on term limits in 2000

A smoking gun has been uncovered in the Pinellas term limits case and the defendants' fingerprints are all over it.
You may recall that county commission and constitutional officer term limits passed with 73 percent of the vote in 1996, but the county refused to insert the amendment into their charter as clearly required by the law due to its alleged constitutional ambiguity.
The county commission and the five constitutional officers sued the voters to get the amendment overturned. The district court denied them, upholding the constitutionality of the term limits.
The constitutional officers continued their suit and requested authorization to add the Pinellas County Commission to the appeal. However, the minutes of the 5/30/00 county commission meeting -- uncovered via a FOIA request on behalf of plaintiffs in the ongoing case to force commissioners to comply with the law -- clearly show that the Pinellas County Commission chose not to participate.
According to the document, County Attorney Susan Churuti advised the commission of their options and the process of becoming appellants. But, the document says, "following discussion, Commissioner [and current defendant Karen] Seel moved, seconded by Commissioner Parks and carried, that the county commission do nothing and let the ruling stand."
The constitutional officers went all the way to the Supreme Court, alone. This is why only constitutional officer term limits were reviewed in the split 2002 Cook decision that declared constitutional officer limits to be unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court never tackled the issue of county commission term limits until 2012 when it unanimously declared them to be constitutional. For good measure, the Supremes overturned Cook at the same time, declaring without ambiguity that charter county voters have the right to impose term limits on their public servants.
Since then, 10 of the 11 charter counties with county commission term limits are obeying the law. Most of them always did. Only Pinellas -- after losing at the district level and then at the Florida Supreme Court -- continues to defy the voters and the law.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Judge gives Pinellas County special pass to ignore term limits law

It was a surprising defeat in Pinellas County, Fla., on May 2 when Circuit Court Judge John Schaefer sided with the politicians in their row with voters over the county’s voter-approved 8-year county commissioner term limits law.

As previously reported, Pinellas County failed to insert the term limits language in the county charter as clearly required by law after the amendment was passed by 73% in 1996. Commissioners claim they were justified in doing so because of the constitutional ambiguity of the measure. But in May 2012 the Supreme Court of Florida unanimously declared county commission term limits to be constitutional. In all other charter counties in Florida, the Supreme Court decision meant county commission term limits laws would either remain in effect or, in the case of Sarasota and Broward counties, would begin to be enforced.

But not Pinellas. Only here, in this Gulf Coast Florida county that includes St. Petersburg, commissioners claim a special exemption from the Supreme Court decision. Here, they argue, there was no amendment to enforce because the county never entered it in the charter!

In making this decision, the court accepted this arguably criminal act as a fait accompli. Fixing it would be disruptive – as three commissioners would be forced from office – but looking the other way would be easy. The judge took the cowardly course and the will of Pinellas County voters has been nullified.

Well, maybe. Patrick Wheeler and the other plaintiffs in the case against the commissioners are not taking this lying down. They are currently working on the brief for their appeal in the Second Court of Appeals in Lakeland. In preparing the case, they faced a potential problem: The social and political connections between the scofflaw Pinellas Commissioners and a couple of Second Appeals Court judges were well known. Cocktail party politics sunk the first case and it seemed fated to happen again.
Fortunately, the two judges in question -- Silberman and Khouzam – recused themselves immediately upon the request of the citizen plaintiffs and Wheeler is confident he will receive a fair hearing.

Term limits rarely are defeated at the ballot box. When they fall, it is nearly always the result of legal machinations by affected politicians and politicized courts. Wheeler and company deserve our help in writing a different ending to this old, old story.

(Contributions are needed to defray legal costs for the single lawyer on the citizens' side. Please help. Right now, the lion's share of the cost is being handled by just one man, plaintiff H. Patrick Wheeler. Donations can be made payable to and mailed to John A. Shahan, 536 E. Tarpon Ave. #3, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689. Please note 'term limits' in memo field of check.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

May 2 is D-Day for corrupt Pinellas County pols

May 2 is approaching and four Pinellas County commissioners are scared. In December, a circuit court judge refused to dismiss the suit against them for violating their legal term limits. Now they face a judge again on May 2 in what could be the final hearing of the case. Both sides are again asking for summary judgment.
In 1996, 73% of Pinellas voters passed 8-year term limits but these renegade commissioners refused to insert the term limits amendment language into the charter as required by law. Then when term limits went into effect 8 years later, they refused to step down.  After all, the language isn't in the charter!
Citizens were outraged and, after friendly court decisions around the state including a unanimous Florida Supreme Court decision that term limits are constitutional, they filed suit. The three plaintiffs on the people's side represent diverse political, ethnic, professional and geographical faces of Pinellas County. This is appropriate as term limits are not a Republican versus Democrat issue but one of the people versus the arrogance of unchecked power.
And nowhere is that arrogance more on display than in this West Coast Florida county, home of St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Shortly after the adverse decision in December, the commissioners doubled their legal team adding four additional lawyers. Yes, that's right, they spending an enormous amount of the people's money to fight the clearly expressed will of the people. And why? To directly benefit themselves.
Wow. Is it any wonder people everywhere love term limits?

In addition to lawyering up, commissioner Ken Welch publically declared in February that he is seeking another position in local government and may not serve his full term. One of the reasons, he said, is that the judge may decide he cannot serve his full term. One would hope part of the reason also is that he knows resigning is the right thing to do. Fellow scofflaws Karen Seel, John Morroni and Susan Latvala should follow Welch's lead.
Citizens are invited to attend the hearing at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 2 at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court Street, Courtroom C, Clearwater. Because of citizen interest, the venue might change to accommodate spectators.

Contributions are needed to defray legal costs for the single lawyer on the citizens' side. Please help. Right now, the lion's share of the cost is being handled by just one man, plaintiff H. Patrick Wheeler. Donations can be made payable to and mailed to Save Pinellas, c/o 1028 Peninsula Ave., Tarpon Springs, FL 34689.

For more detail on the case, go here.
Of Florida's 20 charter, or "home rule" counties, 12 have term limits. Miami-Dade voters just approved 8-year limits last November. In all but one of the dozen, the popular term limits laws are respected and enforced. It is hoped that on May 2 the citizens will triumph and a decade of political corruption in this beautiful county will be swept away.

(Pictured, the three plaintiffs Maria Scruggs, H. Patrick Wheeler and Beverley Billiris.)