County to cities: Let's end the fight

Published February 28, 2007

CLEARWATER - Pinellas County has opted for peace. Now it's up to Pinellas' 24 cities to follow suit.

The County Commission on Tuesday voted 5-2 in support of a settlement agreement that would end a months-long legal battle with the cities over changes to Pinellas' charter.

A group of mayors voted to back the settlement last week, but they still must get approval from their councils.

That process could take a month, and if one town balks, the deal would die. Still, elected officials hope they're close to abandoning the feud. "We need to end this litigation and move forward on the real issues of public importance," said County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan. "I'm optimistic that that will happen."

Last year, over the cities' objections that the proposed changes were confusing, a judge allowed seven amendments developed by the county's Charter Review Commission on the November ballot. Most measures the cities opposed were defeated, but voters approved two amendments that - if acted on by the Florida Legislature - would limit the cities' annexation powers.

The deal on the table involves an interlocal agreement that would eliminate the need for action by the Legislature. The agreement borrows from the charter amendments voters supported and would clarify the rules for some kinds of annexation actions. Aside from approval by the county's 24 municipalities, a judge would have to sign off on the agreement. At that point, the two sides would drop their lawsuit.

County Commissioner Ken Welch, who along with board member Susan Latvala voted against the settlement, said its provisions are inconsistent with what voters supported in November.

Other leaders greeted news of the commission's vote with enthusiasm, saying constituents had made it clear they wanted the two parties to end their taxpayer-funded spat.

"It's a win-win for all the cities and the county," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "It is good for all of us to have this settled and move on."