A judge announced Thursday he would rule this month on whether four Pinellas County commissioners are violating term limits approved by voters in 1996 by remaining in office.
Attorneys argued that issue at length Thursday for the first time since a lawsuit seeking to oust the quartet was filed last year.
After an hours-long hearing, Pinellas Circuit Judge John Schaefer announced he would make a decision by May 17.
In their lawsuit, the three plaintiffs argue that commissioners Ken Welch, Karen Seel, Susan Latvala and John Morroni should have served a maximum of two four-year terms.
Each has served longer, though.
Two of the plaintiffs, Maria Scruggs and former Tarpon Springs mayor Beverley Billiris, have unsuccessfully run against Welch and Latvala, respectively.
The referendum voters approved was essentially ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court during a court battle that raged for seven years, according to Steven Dupre, a private attorney for the county.
The court has backed away from that stance in more recent decisions, meaning a new referendum might be able to limit terms in Pinellas, but that doesn’t mean the current commissioners have to step down, as the plaintiffs want, Dupre said.
“The plaintiffs basically have a view of the facts that’s skewed,” Dupre said. “There has never been an attempt to adopt new constitutional term limits.”
The last time the charter was amended, in 1999, voters agreed to increase the number of county commissioners from four to seven, without any provision for term limits, Dupre said.
However, John Shahan, the attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the term limits approved by voters in 1996 should have been added to the charter the following year. That would have been before the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on the referendum.
“In 1997, it should have been typed into the charter, and that was not done,” Shahan said.
One of the few times Schaefer asked any of the attorneys a question touched on that issue. Dupre responded that the term limits weren’t supposed to kick in until eight years after the referendum passed and that there was also raging litigation. His response drew a collective chortle from spectators who almost filled the courtroom Thursday.
Shahan also argued that when the Florida Supreme Court supposedly squashed the referendum, it was actually referring only to constitutional officers, such as sheriffs or clerks of courts – and not county commissioners.
“You have to rule these folks did their eight years, and they need to move on to some other job,” Shahan said.
The plaintiffs also want the commissioners to return the salaries they earned beyond what the plaintiffs believe were their allowed eight years in office.
If the plaintiffs had a problem with the county commissioners getting re-elected, they should have contested the individual elections within 10 days of the votes being certified, much as a candidate who lost a close race might, said John Powell, an assistant county attorney who is representing the commissioners.