Because of concern about possible disruptions to the 2012 election, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday to proceed with a Jan. 31, 2012, special election on a proposed charter amendment that would limit the commissioners to three consecutive terms.
As he did when the amendment first was proposed, Commissioner Joe Barbetta opposed it.
Although 15 of the 17 people who appeared before the commission during a public hearing Tuesday opposed the action, Commissioner Christine Robinson said the board did not know whether the Florida Supreme Court would decide to hear a Broward County case on term limits. In August, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in that case that commission term limits were constitutional.
After questioning County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh Tuesday, Robinson said, “I just don’t like the idea of putting us in this legal limbo.”
She added she had spoken with several candidates for the commission race next year.
“They want some certainty,” she said.
Commissioner Jon Thaxton is among the candidates planning to run in 2012; he will be seeking his fourth term.
“I had a great deal of difficulty convincing my wife I was going to run this time,” Thaxton said to about 35 residents in the audience. “My commitment to her was that I would not run for County Commission again if re-elected this time.”
Robinson also reminded the audience that, as an attorney, she had been involved in the recount of ballots cast in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
“It’s not fun,” she said. “I don’t think that our county needs that right now.”
At the outset of the discussion Tuesday, DeMarsh presented the commissioners a revised version of the ballot question. That question is one focal point of a lawsuit filed Nov. 8 against the county regarding the term limits amendment. The revision removed language regarding the constitutionality of term limits, a move DeMarsh said he felt advisable in light of the lawsuit.
Robinson also suggested to fellow commissioners the ballot language be amended to make the term limits retroactive to 2005, when the county lost a legal challenge to the 1998 charter change that called for a limit of two consecutive terms. Additionally, she suggested the amendment keep the two-term limit imposed in 1998. No other commissioner supported those efforts.
“If the voters do wish to have term limits, then three terms is better than two,” Thaxton said, eliciting a ripple of laughter and sighs in the audience. “I recognize that it does sound self-serving.”
However, Thaxton cited comments by Jono Miller, director of the New College Environmental Studies Program and a former candidate for County Commission, who had said during the public hearing that commissioners’ expertise grows the longer they serve, and they are able to work more effectively for the county as members of regional and state organizations.
“And I’m concerned we’re going to lose that if we go to a two-term limit,” Miller said.
Miller also had noted that, based on the 1998 term-limits referendum, one would not expect voters to return commissioners to office for third or fourth terms
“(However) they’ve consistently gone ahead and done that,” he said.
Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson won 91,380 votes when she was re-elected to her fourth term in 2010, Miller said, a figure that represented 24% of the county population at the time.
In response to one comment during the public hearing, DeMarsh said Longboat Key Town Attorney David Persson, whom the County Commission hired last week to defend the county against the new lawsuit, would be arguing for the constitutionality of term limits, just as he did in the 2005 case.
The discussion elicited criticism during public comment.
“You are again demonstrating that the voters of this county don’t matter or you matter more,” said Venice resident John Scolaro in reference to the passage of the 1998 term limits amendment by 68% of the voters.
Several speakers complained the setting of the special election on the same date as Florida’s Republican Presidential Primary would limit turnout. The fate of the new charter amendment would be decided “primarily by voters of one political party,” said Pat Rounds, one of the 16 plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last week by attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen.
“This appears to be a deliberate attempt on your part to secure a low voter turnout at a cost to the taxpayers of $120,000,” Cynthia Crowe told the commissioners. “We the people no longer are willing to sit back and watch government of the people be turned by you into government for the people.”
Revised term-limit charter amendment
The County Commission Nov. 15 approved revised language for the term-limits amendment that will be on the ballot during a Jan. 31 special election.
Voters would have the option of voting “yes” or “no” on the question, “Shall Section 2.1A of the Sarasota County Charter be amended to allow commissioners to serve three consecutive terms, rather than two consecutive terms, and to provide that term limits shall be applicable only to future terms rather than to current or prior terms?”