Pinellas officials can run and run
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Until Thursday morning, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith and his chief assistant, Pam Dubov, had their futures planned.
Term limits would force Smith out of office in 2004, and Dubov would run to take his place.
But the Florida Supreme Court changed all that Thursday by throwing out Pinellas voters' 1996 decision to limit the county's five constitutional officers to two four-year terms.
That means that those officials can remain sheriff, property appraiser, clerk of court, tax collector and elections supervisor for decades, as long as they are re-elected.
"I didn't think this was going to be the result, because the politically popular position is to support term limits," said Clearwater lawyer Tim Johnson, whose wife, Clair, was the first one to challenge the measure.
Thursday's decision also puts the legality of term limits for Pinellas County commissioners into question, even though the court didn't directly address their offices.
Of the three constitutional officers who would have been forced out of office in January 2005, only Smith said he is considering another bid for office.
Sheriff Everett Rice and Clerk Karleen De Blaker, the two officers who pursued the case to the Supreme Court, said Thursday they will not run again.
"I'm feeling vindicated," Rice said. "You know, 61/2 years of litigation, three lower court rulings. It finally took the Florida Supreme Court to agree that I was right."
Fred Thomas, chairman of the Eight Is Enough group that led the drive to put term limits on the ballot, and his lawyer did not return calls Thursday.
In a 4-3 ruling, the majority of the court said that the state Constitution sets out the only limits on who can run for a constitutional office.
Pinellas is one of 17 Florida counties with a special charter giving it more local authority. But even charter counties don't have the power to allow local voters to enact term limits on constitutional office, the court said. Term limits can be placed on those offices only by amending the state Constitution, or by abolishing the offices and restructuring them.
In the same ruling, the court also said Jacksonville voters didn't have the authority to amend the city charter to place term limits on the clerk of court.
The three dissenting justices argued that the state Constitution gives charter counties broad powers, including those to choose those officers "in another manner," and that that should include limiting their terms.
Hillsborough is a charter county, but its constitutional officers have no term limits.
In 1996, Eight Is Enough gathered more than 48,000 signatures to put the term limit question on the ballot. Clair Johnson sued to try to keep it off the ballot, but a judge ruled against her, and 72 percent of county voters decided in favor of the measure.
Later, the constitutional officers took up the fight. But as lower courts ruled against them, officers dropped out, finally leaving only Rice and De Blaker.
County Attorney Susan Churuti said the ruling may void the term limits on county commissioners. The court's ruling addressed only constitutional officers, but voters were asked about term limits for the commissioners in the same question.
"Normally, courts are not allowed to go back and split decisions," Churuti said. "We've consistently taken the position that . . . if it's unconstitutional for one, it's unconstitutional for all."
But the first commissioner to face term limits is Bob Stewart in 2004, so Churuti said there's time to resolve the question. (Commissioners Barbara Sheen Todd, Karen Seel and Ken Welch also are up for re-election in 2004, but do not face term limits then.)
Thomas, a former Clearwater commissioner and president of the Pinch-a-Penny pool supplies chain, has said term limits would put more responsive politicians with fresh ideas in office. Too many people don't run for office because they don't have the money to challenge a powerful, entrenched incumbent, he said.
But De Blaker said she thinks term limits make government less accountable.
"The best example of what happens right now is with the Legislature," she said. "When you know you're only there for eight years, the last two years you just do whatever you want to do. You don't much care whether you do what's right or not."
With elected officials frequently leaving office, government staffers gain more power, De Blaker said. And she thinks qualified managers are less likely to run for a constitutional office if they know they must leave in eight years.
"You need an administrator, not a hack politician," she said.
Dubov, the property appraiser's chief assistant, had more mixed feelings. She opposes term limits and said the court's legal reasoning was right. But she said she thinks voters' wish for term limits "counts for something."
After learning about the ruling, Dubov walked into Smith's office and told him that, despite her earlier plan, "whatever he wants to do is fine with me."
"I would never, ever even give a thought on the planet to run against him," she said.
Smith has been thinking of a bid for clerk of court. But now he's not sure, he said. The recent controversy over a land speculator's purchase of odd properties at tax deed sales has increased his interest in running again.
"I still find all this very interesting, especially the last two weeks," Smith said. "Now we're doing all this Monday-morning quarterbacking -- what else do we need to do?"
-- Times staff writer Christopher Goffard and staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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