A Florida Supreme Court ruling May 10 not only will limit Sarasota County commissioners to two terms, but it also will make it possible for voters to impose term limits on the constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the clerk of court, by amending the county’s charter.
Jono Miller, a community leader who ran unsuccessfully for County Commission as a Democrat in 2008, told The Sarasota News Leader May 10 that he was surprised by the inclusion of the constitutional officers in the ruling.
“Those are positions that I think … we like to see continuity in,” he said, adding that term limits for those officers “would be unfortunate … just as term limits for county commissioners is unfortunate.”
During a Nov. 15, 2011, public hearing before the County Commission on a new Sarasota County Charter amendment the commission had proposed, which called for a maximum of three term limits for commissioners from the time voters approved the amendment, Miller pointed out that Commissioner Nora Patterson had received high vote totals in running for her third and fourth terms. He reiterated that May 10, adding, “You either have to side with the voters all the time or admit that voters are sometimes wrong.”
Although the primary ruling handed down by the Supreme Court May 10 dealt with the appeal of a Broward County case, the court issued a separate order affirming term limits for the Sarasota County Commission. That ruling was on a lawsuit filed against Sarasota County Nov. 8, 2011, by Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, which sought to force the county to abide by a September 1998 referendum that amended the Sarasota County Charter to impose a limit of two terms on the commissioners.
David Persson, the Longboat town attorney who also represented Sarasota County in the case, told the News Leader that the high court’s decision “recognizes the broad authority given to the citizens of charter counties to set their own qualifications for people to hold public office.”
Noting that the decision also covered the constitutional officers, Persson added, “The decision of whether term limits for local county officials is a good idea or a bad idea can now be determined locally.”
Andrea Flynn Mogensen, the attorney for the Sarasota citizens group, told the News Leader May 10, “Although my clients had a wide variety of opinions regarding whether term limits were appropriate, each shares a belief in the community’s right to self-govern to the greatest extent the constitution would permit. We are very pleased that the decision expressly finds that allowing the counties to govern themselves, pursuant to their home rule powers, is constitutionally required.”
The high court ruling will mean the end of Commissioner Jon Thaxton’s bid for re-election to a fourth term.
“I might be disappointed today,” Thaxton told the News Leader, “[but] I have no regrets. It’s been a great run. Not many people get to wake up every morning for 12 years just itching to go to work …
“I really did think I would have four more years to invest in the county,” he said, adding, however, “I am a big believer in constitutional law.”
Thaxton said he would take some time to figure out his next move, pointing out that he wanted to talk with his wife first. While public officials have to develop “thick skins” to deal with public criticism, Thaxton said, “it’s very hard for spouses to see their loved ones trashed.”
Robert Waechter, a former chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party, told the News Leader May 10, “I am disappointed that Sarasota County is going to lose some very good institutional knowledge,” with Thaxton having to bow out of the race.
Moreover, Waechter said, even though Commissioners Nora Patterson and Joe Barbetta both have said publicly in recent months that they did not intend to seek re-election when their terms ended, it might have been possible, without the high court’s ruling, for supporters to change their minds.
Patterson was re-elected to her fourth term while Barbetta was elected to his second term in 2010.
Although 68% of the Sarasota County voters who cast ballots on the 1998 charter amendment approved it, the amendment was ruled unconstitutional in a 2005 case in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota.
One of the cases Circuit Court Judge Deno G. Economou of Sarasota cited in that 2005 ruling was a case the Florida Supreme Court cited in its decision May 10.
The Supreme Court pointed out that when it ruled in 2002 on the constitutionality of term limits in the case of City of Jacksonville v. Cook, Justice Harry Lee Anstead dissented, writing that the broad home rule authority granted to charter counties under the Florida Constitution “was obviously intended to allow [those] counties wide latitude in [enacting] regulations governing the selection and duties of county officers. … The term limit provisions in the charters in these cases are not inconsistent with any provision of general law relating to elected county officers.”
Therefore, Anstead wrote, “I can find no legal justification for concluding that charter counties should not be allowed to ask their citizens to vote on eligibility requirements of local elected officials, including term limits, since they could abolish the offices completely or decide to select the officers in any manner of their choosing.”
The Florida Supreme Court pointed out in its May 10 ruling that Anstead was correct in his interpretation.
Low voter turnout for 1998 charter amendment
Both Waechter and Miller told The Sarasota News Leader May 10 that although proponents of the two-term limit for Sarasota County commissioners point to 68% of the voters approving the 1998 charter amendment, the total voter turnout was small in that election.
“What nobody says [is that] we had 15% turnout” of county voters casting ballots, Waechter said. “This was not something that was overwhelmingly adopted by the voters of Sarasota County.”
“[That] was what I would call a minor election,” Miller pointed out. “It was not a big, general election.”
Waechter added, “I would love to see this [issue] come on the ballot again in a general election cycle.”
Miller told the News Leader he felt Sarasota County voters at some point in the future would realize that term limits was a bad idea. However, he said, “It’s easier to pass bad legislation than it is to go back and rescind bad legislation.”
Even if a new charter amendment striking down term limits could be put on the ballot in the future, he added, voters would have to be educated sufficiently about the measure if there were to be any chance of reversing the 1998 decision.
2012 County Commission races
In its ruling, the Supreme Court pointed out that the timing of the decision would not disrupt elections for county races.
The formal filing period begins at noon June 4 and ends at noon June 8 for the three Sarasota County Commission seats open this year.
Along with Thaxton, Chairwoman Christine Robinson — who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in late 2010 to fill out the unexpired term of Commissioner Shannon Staub — and Commissioner Carolyn Mason have filed to keep their seats.
Mason was elected to her first County Commission term in 2008.
Mason thus far is unopposed, while Robinson faces a challenge from Democrat Jennifer Cohen of North Port (see www.cohen4commissioner.com), a member of that city’s Charter Review Board as well as a member of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Two Republicans had filed before May 10 to run against Thaxton: Vanessa J. Carusone, a former North Port city commissioner; and William Brian Slider, whose campaign website (www.mitzkat.com) notes his 20 years of business management experience in the automotive and specialty retail industries and 10 years of experience “as an account representative in the technology industry.”