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.)