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Court, Legislature address term limits for commissioners

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 8, 2012
  • Siesta Key
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While the attorneys for a citizens group and Sarasota County continue filing briefs with the Florida Supreme Court for oral arguments this spring in a County Commission term-limits case, two resolutions on the same matter are awaiting final action in the Florida Senate.

Michael Barfield, the paralegal working with Sarasota attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen, who is representing the citizens group, said this week he and Mogensen were hopeful the state’s highest court would rule before May 1 on whether term limits are constitutional for county commissioners.

The timeline is critical, county citizens say, because the formal filing period begins at noon June 4 and ends at noon June 8 for the three Sarasota County Commission seats up for election this year. One of the candidates, incumbent Jon Thaxton, is seeking his fourth term. Thaxton has said he will remain in the race as long as he legally is permitted to do so.

Both the plaintiffs and the County Commission are arguing that each commissioner should be limited to two consecutive terms. A 1998 Sarasota County Charter amendment, approved by 68% of the voters who went to the polls, imposed that limit. However, the 12th Judicial Circuit Court ruled the amendment unconstitutional in a 2005 case. That ruling was left in effect after an emergency hearing Nov. 21 in the 12th Circuit Court, this time on a lawsuit filed by the 16 Sarasota County citizens Mogensen represents.

In response to uncertainty last fall about whether the Florida Supreme Court would agree to hear appeals of term-limits cases from both Sarasota County and Broward County, Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, co-sponsored House Joint Resolution 785, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Broward County Democrat, filed Senate Joint Resolution 1070, for consideration during the 2012 legislative session.

Both resolutions, which were filed Nov. 28, seek to amend the Florida Constitution to make term limits for county commissioners constitutional, as provided for by county charters.

As of 6:16 p.m. March 5, House Joint Resolution 785 was awaiting review in both the Senate Community Affairs and Senate Judiciary committees.

It was sent to the state Senate Feb. 24, after winning Florida House approval on a vote of 116-0.

The Senate resolution has been in the Senate Judiciary Committee since Feb. 1; it was approved by the Senate Community Affairs Committee on a 7-0 vote Jan. 30.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

Pilon said late Tuesday afternoon that the fate of the resolution was up to the Senate at this point. Ring’s staff did not respond to a request for comment on whether the Legislature would approve a final version of the resolutions.

In the meantime, Longboat Key Town Attorney David Persson, who was hired last year by the Sarasota County Commission to represent it in the latest term-limits lawsuit — just as he did in the 2004-2005 case — has filed his response to the citizens brief, which Mogensen filed Feb. 21.

Persson says in his Feb. 27 brief that Section 1(e) of Article VIII of the Florida Constitution “should be construed to allow electors of charter counties to enact provisions within their charter to establish term limits for county commissioners.”

Among his citations, Persson references a Jan. 12 Florida Supreme Court decision involving the West Florida Regional Medical Center Inc. That ruling says that if the language regarding the meaning of a provision of the Florida Constitution is “clear, unambiguous and addresses the matter at issue,” the language “is enforced as written.”

He also references the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal decision in August in the Broward County term-limits case. The appeals court noted that the introductory clause of Section 1(e) of Article VIII of the state constitution says, “Except when otherwise provided by county charter, the governing body of each county shall be a board of county commissioners composed of five or seven members serving staggered terms of four years.”

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that that clause, relative to local control of county charters for commissioners, “clearly and unambiguously allows the local charter to express the will of that particular jurisdiction with regard to the number of county commissioners and their terms of office.”

Persson also notes that charter counties, such as Sarasota, “are granted broad home rule powers under Article VIII, (Section) 1(g)” of the Florida Constitution, which says, “Counties operating under county charters shall have all powers of local self-government not inconsistent with general law or with special law approved by vote of the electors.”


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