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County to sue over election changes; commissioners fear retaliation

Mark Parker

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Following a spirited debate Tuesday, Pinellas County Commissioners vote 4-2 to sue the state over an election bill it feels unfairly targets the county. Screengrab.

Following an impassioned discussion Tuesday, Pinellas County commissioners decided to sue the state over the recently signed elections reform law that they believe unfairly and illegally targets Pinellas to benefit one state politician.

On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 524 into law, creating an office to investigate election crime. Attached to the bill, which was a priority for DeSantis, was a provision that mandates commissioners in single-member districts must run for reelection following the redistricting process – including those elected to a four-year term in 2020.

Although state lawmakers filed SB 524 as a general bill instead of a local measure, it included provisions that only apply to Pinellas County. Local bills also require notice and public hearings, something not afforded to the only county affected by the new law. District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel and District 7 Commissioner Rene Flowers must now run for their seats again in November, despite two years remaining on their terms.

“I don’t think the dais is the place to get into the bare-knuckle politics that we know are behind this legislation,” said Commission Chair Charlie Justice. “But we all know why this legislation came about.”

Without mentioning the legislator by name, the commissioners referenced the bill aiding state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, several times during Tuesday’s meeting. Last year, Latvala filed to run for Seel’s District 5 seat in 2024, when Seel planned to step down following her sixth term. The new law allows the state representative to run for county commission following his term-limited stint in the Florida House this year.

“This all makes me very sad,” said a solemn Seel. “Because it’s been a privilege to serve Pinellas County all these years.”

Flowers filed paperwork to seek reelection in District 7 following the governor signing the bill into law Monday, but Seel has yet to decide whether she will campaign to complete the last two years of her final term.

Flowers said her opposition to the bill was due to it only applying to Pinellas. She added that the county utilizing staff and resources to fight the measure was no different than the legislature setting aside $1 million to fight the governor’s congressional redistricting map in court.

“I have no problem running again,” said Flowers. “But I do think this certainly erodes the separation of powers.

“And I believe this time it went a little too far.”

Commissioner Kathleen Peters, already up for reelection in District 6 this year, was against the county suing the state. She made the argument that the provision compensates for redistricting changes. “So, you have probably 20,000 people that didn’t vote for the person that now represents them.” She added that the bill only affects two people every 10 years.

Peters, like other commissioners, also said the county could face retaliation and lose funding by challenging the governor. Pinellas could lose the $15 million appropriated to the Toy Town project, $9.5 million for stormwater improvements and many other state-funded initiatives, she said.

“You sue the governor for one of his top priority bills – if you think he will not pull up the veto pen for every single appropriation that we receive this year and every single appropriation that we’ll receive in the future – I think that’s being naïve,” said Peters.

“There’s a lot of risks here.”

Commissioner Janet Long did not mince words when stating her opinion of the legislation. She called the bill absolutely illegal, egregious and disrespectful. Long added that she took offense when people said the provision was to address redistricting changes and said it was a matter of right and wrong as a principle.

“A bully is a bully is a bully,” said Long. “And at what point do you say enough is enough?”

Commissioner Pat Gerard said the situation was a sad day for democracy. She called it disgusting that the entire commission realizes that the governor will unleash his power to veto local appropriations if the county files suit.

“That’s so not the democratic way,” said Gerard, her voice cracking. “It makes me want to cry.”

Commissioner Dave Eggers said ensuring people in newly formed districts have a say in their representation is doing the right thing. He noted state leadership broached the measure last year, so it should not come as a shock or surprise to the commission. He was also not in favor of using tax dollars to defend against what he perceived as a benefit to residents.

Eggers also downplayed the risk involved in suing the state.

“You guys have certainly leaped there to think that we’re going to get vetoed on every single item,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the motivator anyway … I think that’s unfair.”

Gerard reiterated that the issue was with the provision only targeting Pinellas County. She also said it was fair to expect retaliation when the governor “just snatched the special districts out from under Disney World.”

County Attorney Jewel White was adamant that the commission had cause to sue due to the provision’s designation as a general bill despite only targeting one county. Following the spirited debate, commissioners voted 4-2 to sue the state. Eggers and Peters opposed the motion, and Seel abstained.

 

 

 

 

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