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County Sued Over Commissioner Term Limits

A group of citizens said county commissioners should be held to the term limits passed by voters in 1998. In 2005, a Sarasota judge ruled that enforcing term limits for county commissioners was unconstitutional.

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.)

beth colvin November 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM
Let's see if I have this correct: The people of Sarasota voted to limit terms of their Commissioners in 1998 and when a Commissioner ignored the amendment no one blew the whistle. Seven years later, one individual (on the Charter Review Board) hired an attorney who ruled term limits were unconsitutional for Commissioners so now the taxpayers are paying $120,000 to go to the polls to re-vote on this issue. Oh yes..who will be paying the attorney who represents the Commissioners? (the attorney who reversed the will of the people in the first place)....seems the taxpayers will be on the hook for more money! Get involved folks...it's your money
John Scolaro November 10, 2011 at 12:36 PM
The whole thing is insulting and an affront to freedom and a fair and legitimate government of, by and for the people. The only winners here are the commissioners and their lawyers. Is anybody else bothered by the fact that the county has an entire office full of lawyers and staff on ridiculous salary plus benefits and their pawning the work off to someone else? How much do you suppose 10 lawyers and 9 staff costs, times forever. What do they do all day? After the county cleans up the purchasing and procurement illegalities they should look to see if they are infact running a little laundry operation on the side.
Proofisinthepudding November 11, 2011 at 09:51 AM
The commissioner's need to all be fired, thrown out on their butts. They obviously are above the voters decision's and think of themselves as Gods. If they were acting in the best interest of the voters, they would not insult our intelligence with this fight against the voter vote to term limits. They are throwing more tax money out the window, which I find irresponsible. Instead they should be working on how they can lower home owners taxes. How about this, we vote on how much your going to be paid, benefits, buyouts. It is time to stop the the power they created for themselves.
Bottom Line November 12, 2011 at 12:12 PM
Agreed that the third term starting now is a mile long reach, but as a person that finds it confusing that a majority of voters, at least the minority of those who actually vote, thinks a majority of voters can't be trusted to know a crook and vote them out. My head's swimming. How many worthy voters are actually left? It's always the other guy screwing things up.

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