Senior Judge Jack Schoonover Monday, Nov. 21, declared “very deficient” the language approved last week by the Sarasota County Commission for a proposed county charter amendment scheduled to go on the Jan. 31 ballot.
In his decision in a 12th Circuit Court emergency hearing on a citizens lawsuit, Schoonover also said that the 2005 decision in Moore v. Sarasota County “should not be ignored,” leaving Sarasota County term limits unconstitutional (see editor's note below). The Moore verdict nullified a 1998 charter amendment 68% of voters had approved, which limited commissioners to two consecutive terms.
A lawsuit filed Nov. 8 against the county and Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent had sought a ruling that the term limits approved in 1998 were valid and that the ballot language for the proposed, new charter amendment, which seeks to limit commissioners to three consecutive terms, was confusing.
The County Commission Nov. 22 will have the option of voting to modify the language for the new charter amendment, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh said after Schoonover’s ruling. The commission is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, in the Third Floor Think Tank of the County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., in Sarasota. DeMarsh said he would discuss the matter with Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson and leave to her discretion when to bring up the matter.
The Tuesday meeting is a joint session with the Sarasota City Commission.
Dent said Monday afternoon that she would have to have any new ballot language by the end of office hours Tuesday, if the measure still were to go on the Jan. 31 ballot.
Andrea Mogensen, the Sarasota attorney representing the citizens group, said the new ballot language “would be critical to deciding” what action her clients would take. Coming up with language appropriate for the charter amendment, she said, “is going to be extraordinarily difficult.”
Mogensen had cited legal precedents in arguing that ballot language has to be clear to voters. The language the County Commission approved last week included the sentence, “These term limits would be enforceable if a court’s ruling results in Sarasota County Commissioner term limits being found constitutional.” Mogensen told the court that voters would be confused, because they would not know when or if the term limits would be found constitutional in a future court case.
Regarding the judge’s decision on term limits, Mogensen said, “We were very pleased with that.”
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the Moore v. Sarasota County ruling in 2005.