In 1998, more than 60 percent of Sarasota County voters approved a county charter amendment that limited county commissioners to two four-year terms.
But in 2005, a Sarasota judge ruled that term limits for county commissioners were unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, county attorney Steve DeMarsh informed the commission that the county faces a lawsuit by a group of citizens seeking to enforce the term limits passed by voters 13 years ago.
"Earlier this morning we received a copy of a complaint against Sarasota County," DeMarsh told commissioners on Tuesday. "The case is brought by 16 plaintiffs against Sarasota County, Kathy Dent and Frank and Dorothy Moore."
Earlier this year the 4th District Court of Appeals in Broward County ruled on a similar case, the Snipes case, which said the public can impose term limits on commissioners.
The suit against the county was filed by Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government and other members of the public.
In an email to Citizens for Responsible Government members, the group said:
"As citizens, we find ourselves taking this action because we believe the current Board of County Commissioners has abrogated their responsibility to uphold the will of voters and the County Charter. We believe the County Commission had a responsibility to instruct the County Attorney to seek clarification from the local court regarding the 4th DCA ruling and the enforceability of existing term limits in the County Charter.
"Instead, 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. Unfortunately the BCC's actions undermine the public interest, the County Charter and the will of voters."
The plaintiffs are asking the court to enforce the term limits approved by voters in 1998 and to remove a potential charter amendment from the special election on Jan. 31, 2012.
After the ruling in Broward County, the Commission made a move to craft a new policy on term limits.
Commissioners are scheduled to have a public hearing on Nov. 15 to approve proposed ballot language that would set three four-year term limits for commissioners.
The term limits would apply only to new county commissioners.
The proposed charter change, tentatively set to be voted on by the public in January, says:
"Shall Section 2.IA of the Sarasota County Charter be amended to allow County Commissioners to serve three consecutive terms, rather than two consecutive terms, currently ruled unconstitutional by the twelfth judicial circuit court, and to provide that term limits shall be applicable only to future terms rather than to current or prior terms? These terms limits would be enforceable if a court's ruling results in Sarasota County's Commissioner term limits being found constitutional."
Even if the term limits are supported, the lawsuit is expected to move forward. DeMarsh recommended to staff on Tuesday that the BCC seek outside counsel from Davis Persson to represent them in the lawsuit.
Persson represented the county in the 2005 ruling that declared term limits unconstitutional.
Commissioners approved the recommendation unanimously.
(Editor's note: A pdf of the lawsuit is next to this article. It is accessible by looking below the photo at the top right of the article.)