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Pinellas County accuses state, new election law of 'targeting'

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Posted at 9:41 PM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-19 23:17:43-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — When it comes to Florida's recently passed Elections Administration law, the Pinellas County Commission said the state of Florida isn't playing fair.

Their concerns all come down to about two paragraphs worth of text — essentially saying county commissioners in single-member districts have to run again for their seats after a redistricting happens. This new provision also contains exceptions for Miami-Dade county, counties that don't have a charter, and counties without commission term limits.

When you factor those in, as of now, Pinellas County is the only county that's impacted.

ABC Action News sat down with Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long to talk about this.

"When you have something that only impacts one county, that's why you file it as a local bill because there are other requirements that kick in," Long said. "You must have two public hearings in the county and then it goes through a different process within the Florida legislature and the Florida senate. And so clearly, yes that's a very loaded question, it absolutely feels targeted."

Pinellas County finished its redistricting process in Dec. 2021. As the bill stands now, it would mean Pinellas County Commissioners Rene Flowers in District 7 and Karen Seel in District 5, would have to run for their seats again — despite the fact that both of them have two years left on their current terms.

Some members of the commission feel so strongly about this they voted in late April to file a lawsuit against the Attorney General and Secretary of State, asking for a temporary injunction to the law. The suit claims that the changes are illegal because they don't apply across the board to the entire state. It also said that it's unlikely that the law would impact any other counties in the future.

Florida Gulf Coast University law professor Pamella Seay weighed in on the suit. She said Pinellas County may have a point.

"There is a general indication that it may have been targeted," she said.

But, she also said a lot can happen between now and the next redistricting process.

"There's redistricting that will occur every 10 years so it's very possible that other counties will be impacted at another time," Seay said. "So, that's something that you do need to pay attention to."

She added that legally there is good reason to seek a new election after a redistricting process.

"Many things can happen, many things can change and a lot of things that are very important to the people that live in these districts can be changed by people that they never voted for," she said.

One of the candidates now up for one of the seats is State Representative Chris Latvala, who has filed to run for the Pinellas County Commission District 5 seat.

Latvala did not sponsor the bill that opened up these seats, but he did vote for it when it hit the house floor.

He released the following statement to ABC Action News:

"The bill they are referencing is a senate bill that ultimately passed the House and became law. I was not the sponsor of the bill nor was I involved in its passage other than voting for it when it hit the floor. It was a large election integrity bill that was a priority of our great governor. It is the height of arrogance for the Pinellas County Commission to use tax dollars to sue the state to try to avoid running for reelection when some of their single-member districts added 16,000 residents that never had the opportunity to vote for them. Multiple counties have a policy to make their single-member county commissioners run for reelection during a redistricting year (Hillsborough being one). The entire state senate also runs for reelection during redistricting. Pinellas wants special treatment, and they are using tax dollars to fight to not have to run and thus they are denying our residents their right to choose. I will leave it up to the residents of Pinellas as to who they agree with."

We spoke to ABC Action News Political Analyst Dr. Susan MacManus about this. She said the conception of a termed-out representative running for lower office isn't unusual.

"It's not uncommon and then if they get termed out locally, if there are term limits, then it's not uncommon for them to go back to Tallahassee," she said.

MacManus said it's also not uncommon for people to look for a deeper political meaning behind certain things, like this new law, especially now.

"In an election year, people are always looking for the political motive in just about anything that any public official does. Election year politics is very different from non-election year politics," she said.

In the end, Commissioner Long said the county will continue to fight the law.

"If the legislature will just stop preempting all of our authority, well then that will be the solution," she said.

There is also concern about the timing of this bill and what the lawsuit means for elections. The qualifying period for this year's general election starts on June 13 and the primary election is in August.

The fear is that sitting commissioners who have to run again, won't have much time to decide if they want to run or to campaign if they do go through with it. At this point, Commissioner Rene Flowers has filed for re-election and is currently unopposed, but Commissioner Seel has not filed. Representative Latvala is currently running, unopposed, for Seel's seat and has raised more than $100,000 for his campaign.

The Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller has filed a legal complaint against the county for that lawsuit.

In it, he says that in his role as the "watchdog" in the county, he oversees money that is "spent for a public purpose."

He goes on to question whether or not the county has a legal right to sue the state in connection with the new law and use public funds to pay for it.

In the end, he asks that a judge determine whether it's legal for the county to pay for this legal battle and if he should sign off on any expenditures connected to the lawsuit.

If a judge determines that the county can't use public money to pay for this lawsuit—he's asked that the court block the county from racking up any more public debts connected to its lawsuit with the state.

Pinellas Clerk Complaint Final by ABC Action News on Scribd