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Judge dismisses Pinellas election lawsuit, Seel to retire

Mark Parker

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During Tuesday's board meeting, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel confirmed her retirement. File photo.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper dismissed a Pinellas lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction meant to block an elections reform law commissioners believed unfairly targeted the county to benefit one state politician.

Following Monday’s ruling, Commissioner Karen Seel confirmed Tuesday she would not seek reelection to her single-member District 5 seat this year.

Attached to SB 524, which created an office to investigate election crime, was a provision that mandates commissioners in single-member districts must run for reelection following the redistricting process – including those elected to four-year terms in 2020. Seel planned to retire following the end of her sixth term in 2024, and the judge’s ruling will hasten her exit from county politics.

“This all makes me very sad,” said a solemn Seel during the April 26 meeting in which commissioners voted 4-2 to sue the state.

“Because it’s been a privilege to serve Pinellas County all these years.”

Speaking at Tuesday’s board meeting, Commissioner Janet Long, part of the county’s delegation to Tallahassee, called the hearing “odd” and a “learning experience.”

Long said she wanted to share some of the judge’s comments that could have been comical, if not for the serious subject matter.

“He indicated that the wording of the amendment that stuck what we all know to be a local bill into this general law was so poorly written that when he read it, he thought it didn’t apply to Pinellas County,” said Long. “And, in fact, he was waxing on about whether or not it applied to any county in the State of Florida.

“And then went on to say it was a very poorly written sentence.”

Long added that she hoped the judge would conclude his ruling after stating that aspect of the bill did not apply to any county, “but he kept on going.”

Although state lawmakers filed SB 524 as a general bill instead of a local measure, which would require notice and public hearings, it included provisions that only apply to Pinellas County. Despite two years remaining on their term, the bill forces Seel and District 7 Commissioner Rene Flowers to run for their seats again in November.

Flowers filed paperwork to seek reelection in District 7 last month after the governor signed the bill into law.

“I have no problem running again,” said Flowers during the April 26 meeting. “But I do think this certainly erodes the separation of powers. And I believe this time it went a little too far.”

While the prospects of retaliation and the loss of funding for challenging the governor on one of his priority bills concerned county commissioners, County Attorney Jewel White was adamant that Pinellas had cause to sue over the provision’s designation as a general bill despite applying to one county. Commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters opposed the motion, and Seel abstained.

During Tuesday’s meeting, White explained the paradoxical nature of the suit’s dismissal.

“The judge did dismiss the case, finding that the supervisor of elections here is an indispensable party,” said White. “However, he also found that the Secretary of State is also a proper party.

“That’s a little bit difficult to deal with these days given some case law that provides that supervisors of elections are entitled to the home venue privilege.”

White added that it is challenging to deal with two proper parties, one in Leon County and one in Pinellas, and the case law regarding election supervisors is very new.

White noted the judge did not dismiss the case with prejudice, lending to the legal department’s confusion of why he would provide the opportunity to amend the lawsuit while also finding the county is not a proper party.

“Those two positions seemed a bit inconsistent to us, but nonetheless, that was the ruling.”

County Attorney Jewel White told commissioners she instructed her staff to “take a deep breath” following the hearing in Tallahassee, and that it is unlikely to expect an alternative outcome before the election qualifying period. Screengrab.

Long commended the county attorneys for their work in Tallahassee and said she was “amazed” at their preparation and extensive research. Long said she would also like county commissioners to become more involved with the legal department.

During the meeting weighing the merits of suing the state, commissioners referenced the bill aiding state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, several times without mentioning the legislator by name. Last year, Latvala filed to run for Seel’s District 5 seat in 2024. The new law allows the lawmaker to run for the county commission following his term-limited stint in the Florida House this year.

Latvala has since pushed back on those allegations.

Following the commission’s decision to file suit, Clerk of Court Ken Burke decided to sue the county over litigation expenditures, arguing that it was an unlawful use of public funds.

Long noted Tuesday that a judge dismissed the clerk’s suit as irrelevant on Friday, May 20.

“I know we’ve received quite a bit of emails about this whole entire thing, and obviously folks are very misinformed about who is doing what to who and who is paying for it,” said Long. “So, I thought that was important to clear up.”

White clarified that while a judge denied the clerk’s motion to intervene in Leon County, a suit remains pending in Pinellas. She added that she asked her staff to “take a deep breath” and some time away from the cases before offering recommendations on how the county should proceed.

White explained case law suggests that courts are reluctant to interfere once an election begins, including next month’s qualifying period.

“I will say that I think it is unrealistic to think that we would get any sort of different ruling from the court before the qualifying period begins,” said White. “You may very well find us saying that we might recommend that this case be dismissed – if that’s the will of the board.”

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