Eggers pushes for term limits referendum

Pinellas County Commission Chair Dave Eggers tries to convince fellow commissioner to initiate a referendum on term limits during an Oct. 7 work session.

LARGO — Pinellas County Commission Chair Dave Eggers is on a mission. He believes it is time to allow the voters to decide if term limits should be imposed on county commissioners.

Eggers put the topic on the Oct. 7 work session agenda, saying it was “way past time” voters got to weigh in, adding that “everyone supports it to some degree.”

He said at minimum it was time to have a conversation, reminding everyone that in 1996 70% of voters had said yes to term limits in Pinellas. But due to judicial challenges the notion was defeated.

Eggers favors term limits. He says they allow “new folks” to serve in offices that are important. But he needs five commissioners to agree and support adding a referendum to the ballot.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters agrees with Eggers. Commissioners Janet Long and Pat Gerard do not and Commissioner Charlie Justice questions the need to make a change now. Commissioners Karen Seel and Rene Flowers were absent.

Eggers proposes that commissioners be limited to a maximum of three terms, or 12 years, and after that they “step away from the dais.” A decision would have to be made as to whether to allow them to run for election for another eligible seat. For example, someone representing a single-member district could run again for an at-large position. Eggers doesn’t support that option.

He proposes that if term limits were imposed, a sitting commissioner who would have served three consecutive terms at the end of that term would be allowed to serve one additional term. In addition, term limits would not include constitutional officers, who he says need a higher degree of education and experience.

Some favor term limits of eight years, which was approved by voters in 1996, but regardless of the timeframe, Eggers insists “overwhelmingly nationwide” people want it.

“I think this is an opportunity to have a discussion for this commission to do the right thing,” he said, adding that the county’s last Charter Commission didn’t even discuss term limits.

“I thought it was just a shame,” he said. “We owe it to our residents to have the discussion.”

County Attorney Jewel White presented a timeline on the term limits actions pertaining to Pinellas. After the voters approved term limits charter amendment in 1996, the circuit court declared the amendment constitutional and entered a judgement in favor of "Eight is Enough" in 1999. In 2000, the district court of appeals affirmed the circuit court’s ruling.

In 2002, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the district court of appeals’ ruling and term limit were found to be unconstitutional. In 2003, the circuit court invalidated the 1996 term limits amendment.

In 2010, the Charter Review Commission discussed term limits but did not bring propose any changes.

Florida Supreme Court reversed its 2002 decision in 2012 and ruled that term limits in Broward County were constitutional. In June of that year, a lawsuit was filed to remove commissioners who have served longer than eight years from officer based on the ruling pertaining to Broward County.

In 2013, the circuit court ruled that Pinellas’ county charter did not impose term limits and all commissioners could remain in office. The district court of appeals affirmed the circuit court’s decision in 2014.

That same year, a suit was filed against the county attorney and the Sixth Circuit judge to force them to insert 1996 term limits into the charter. The case was transferred to the district court of appeals. The plaintiffs lost the case.

The last action on term limits came in 2016 when the Charter Review Commission discussed them and again decided not to move them forward. White said according to the minutes of the CRC, the consensus was that term limits “artificially limited voters’ rights to choose commissioners.”

The next Charter Review Commission will convene in 2023 and if it chose to move term limits forward, the question could appear on the 2024 ballot.

But Eggers thinks it would be better for the commission to put term limits on the ballot rather than the CRC or a citizen’s group.

Long, who served on the 2016 CRC, pointed out that Eggers had spoken “vehemently for term limits” at a CRC meeting.

“Now you’re running again,” she said, describing the action as “disingenuous.”

Eggers has declared his intentions to run for a third term in November 2022.

Long believes there is no need to have a law limiting the number of years a commissioner can serve. She says term limits are in place now via elections.

“If the public doesn’t like a commissioner they can vote them out of office,” she said.

She said since she had been elected eight years ago, the majority of the commission had turned over with new people taking over.

Justice agreed that over the past few years, more new people had come onto the commission with three incumbents being voted out and long-time commissioner Ken Welch deciding not to run again.

“Except for two individuals it (term limits) never comes up,” he said.

Justice said it was telling that the past two Charter Review Committees didn’t move the matter forward.

Peters said she is in favor of term limits for commissioners but not the constitutional officers, which had been included in the 1996 referendum. She said constitutional officers, which includes the sheriff, clerk of the court, tax collector, property appraiser and supervisor of elections, require knowledge to do their job as opposed to a commissioner.

“Anyone could be one (commissioner) regardless of skill level and background,” she said.

She questioned Long assertion that the ballot box serves as term limits because she believes incumbents have an advantage over their challengers due to name recognition. She also said incumbents could raise more money for their campaigns.

Justice pointed out that the same as commissioners anyone can run for office as a constitutional officer. He also said that all the commissioners on the board now had been a previous elected official.

Gerard agreed with Justice saying anyone — qualified or not — can run for commissioner or constitutional officer and someone could get elected that is not qualified.

She doesn’t believe that incumbents have an advantage. She says it all depends on what they do.

“If they like what you do, you’ll get elected, if not, I’m out of here,” she said.

She pointed out that institutional knowledge like what long-time commissioner Seel is able to provide is invaluable.

Gerard said she hadn’t heard for anyone in favor of term limits and asked Eggers how he was hearing that people wanted them.

“I’m asking” Eggers said.

“If it’s not broken why fix it,” Long said.

Eggers said people probably weren’t asking because they don’t think it is possible.

Peters said she hears it “all the time.” She said more people had become engaged in government due to COVID. She believes there will be another attempt by citizens to push for term limits.

“I’d rather us do it than having it dictated to us,” she said.

Eggers agreed. He said it was all about giving people a choice.

“Let folks vote on it,” he said, adding that he would bring the matter forward again at another work session when all seven commissioners were present.

He hopes to get term limits on the agenda of a regular meeting so the commission can begin crafting ballot language.

He needs a majority five to support him.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.