The Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 8 to hire Longboat Key Town Attorney David Persson to represent them in a lawsuit filed the same day over the board’s pursuit of a new charter amendment on commissioner term limits.
Persson represented the county in 2005, when it fought a lawsuit seeking to overturn a 1998 charter amendment imposing on commissioners a limit of two consecutive terms. The county lost that lawsuit.
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh informed the commissioners about the new suit during their regular meeting in Venice.
Sarasota attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen, who last week had predicted legal action against the county over the term-limits charter amendment, filed the lawsuit in the 12th Judicial Circuit, in Sarasota County.
The suit asks the court to declare that the Sarasota County Commission is bound to the term limits approved by voters in 1998. The lawsuit further asks for a court ruling that the language for the proposed charter amendment, which the County Commission approved in a 4-1 vote Oct. 26, is not clear. The suit also contends the charter amendment is unnecessary anyway, because in August, a Florida Fourth
Circuit Court of Appeal ruling on term limits binds Sarasota County to the 1998 charter action.
The new charter amendment seeks to allow a commissioner to serve three consecutive terms before stepping down from the board. Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson is in her fourth term, while Commissioner Jon Thaxton has filed for re-election in 2012 to his fourth term.
The new charter amendment would be effective going forward from Jan. 31, if approved by voters in a special election that day. A public hearing on the amendment is set for the regular County Commission meeting Nov. 15 in Sarasota. The lawsuit points out that Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent had informed the county that the proposed ballot language would have to be finalized no later than Nov. 22, if her office were to have sufficient time to print ballots in advance of the Jan. 31 special election.
The lawsuit also points out that the special election will coincide with the Republican Presidential Preference Primary.
The plaintiffs include Cathy Antunes and Patricia Rounds, of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, and Kathleen Bolam, a former member of the county’s Charter Review Committee.
The other 13 plaintiffs are David Brown, Beth Colvin, Cynthia Crowe, Viola DeYoung, Leonard Dale De-Young, Michael Figgins, Lori Frary, Jim Lampl, Millicent Puleo, John Saunders, John Scolaro, W. Brian Slider and Barbara Vaughn.
The suit also names Dent as a defendant in her official capacity; and Frank and Dorothy Moore, who filed the lawsuit the county lost in 2005.
DeMarsh told the commissioners Tuesday that the other plaintiffs would need to hire their own legal counsel.
Citizens Group comments on lawsuit
Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, some of whose members are parties to a new term limits lawsuit against Sarasota County, issued a statement after the suit was filed Nov. 8. Among other comments, the group said, “As citizens, we find ourselves taking this action because we believe the current Board of County Commissioners has abrogated its responsibility to uphold the will of voters and the County Charter … The BCC instructed the county attorney to craft a misleading ballot amendment that would extend their eligibility for office from two terms to three and grandfather their existing time served.”