1998 Sarasota Voter mandate must be upheld by Florida Supreme Court
Originally published April 22, Florida Voices
In April 16th’s “Throw Out Term Limits, Let Voters Reconsider,” author Cary McMullen concludes that “the Supreme Court needs to throw out term limits for county commissioners as a first step toward reconsideration of the whole Issue.” Describing the negative impact of term limits on the Florida legislature, he conflates the County Commission term limits question with the broken state legislature, and says “term limits deny voters a choice and therefore limit democracy.” But voters in home rule counties have made a choice – they have chosen term limits. The term limits case in front of the Supreme Court is focused on upholding voter rights and home rule. The plaintiffs in the Sarasota County term limits case are for, against and ambivalent about term limits, but united in our support for home rule and belief that citizens must determine their government.
Of the 67 counties in Florida, 20 are home rule counties. The 20 each have county charters that function as their local constitutions, determining the structure, responsibilities and limits of county government – all decided by local voters. Local government of non-home rule counties is determined by the state constitution, and every county is required by the state to have certain constitutional officers – e.g. Supervisor of Elections. Sarasota is one of 10 of the 20 home rule counties in Florida that have amended their charters to include term limits for their county commissioners. The power of Sarasota, Broward and other home rule county voters regarding term limits is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court.
How did we get here? In 1998, eight year term limits for county commissioners were approved by 68 percent of Sarasota County voters. In 2005, as Sarasota’s term limits were about to be enforced, they were legally challenged. A Sarasota judge ruled county commissioner term limits were unconstitutional. The local court reasoned that the state constitution does not impose term limits on county constitutional officers (e.g. Supervisor of Elections) and found home rule County Commissioners subject to the state constitution in the same way. It was up to the 2005 Sarasota County Commission to appeal on behalf of voters. They chose not to, citing cost. Term limits remained in our charter but were unenforceable. Other home rule counties passed and enforced term limits, but Sarasota’s term limits remained unenforced.
A similar scenario on the east coast unfolded, but unlike Sarasota Commissioners, Broward Commissioners did appeal their local court ruling against term limits on behalf of their constituents. On August 10, 2011, the 4th District Court of Appeals (DCA) issued a unanimous ruling upholding County Commission term limits. The 4th DCA found that home rule County Commissioners were subject to County Charter term limits. The 4th DCA decision allowed Sarasota voters to petition for the enforcement of their 1998 term limits amendment. The Broward and Sarasota County case were argued before the Florida Supreme Court on April 10.
For opponents of term limits, the avenue to change must not be negating the right of citizens to determine their government. Those who oppose term limits must convince the electorate to abandon them. Mr. McMullen recognizes the wisdom of term limits for the president, and doesn’t argue against the right of U.S. citizens to impose term limits via the U.S. Constitution. How then can he argue against the rights of Florida home rule county citizens to impose term limits via their local constitutions – their County Charters? Abrogating the rights of home rule county voters as a “first step” toward remedying a broken state legislature is a horrible idea. You don’t fix government by undermining voters.