The Pinellas County Commission has decided to pursue legal action against the Legislature over a measure that would put the Commission’s single-member seats up for election in 2022 — a measure that would exclusively affect Pinellas County.
The decision came in a 4-2 vote after emotional commentary from several Commissioners who felt the county was targeted by lawmakers. Now, county attorneys will look into legal action against a portion of one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ priority bills (SB 524), which he signed into law on Monday.
“It is my belief it was intentionally put in the voter protection piece because everyone in Tallahassee knew in the Legislature that the Governor desired that the voter protection piece pass,” Commissioner Rene Flowers said at Tuesday’s meeting. “To assure that this piece of SB 524 passed, it was tucked into the voter protection bill.”
Folded into the new law, which overhauls state election rules, is a provision that requires County Commissioners elected in single-member districts to run for re-election after decennial redistricting, including those elected in 2020. The proposal as written would uniquely impact Pinellas County, which alone meets the criteria under the legislation. It would require two Commissioners — Flowers and Karen Seel — to run for re-election after only serving two years of a four-year term.
Commissioners not-so-subtly referenced state Rep. Chris Latvala, who confirmed to Florida Politics he will seek election to the Pinellas County Commission in the 2022 cycle after mulling a run for several months. The targeted language of the bill led several Commissioners to point to suspicion on the intent of the legislation, suggesting it would help the Pinellas County legislator run for Seel’s seat in 2022.
“We all know this clause was put in for one person,” Commissioner Pat Gerard said. That allegation was echoed by Commissioners Flowers, Charlie Justice and Janet Long, who all voted in favor of pursuing legal action.
“We all know this is to benefit one person and one person only, who wants to be here and not have to go through all the rigors of everything that everybody else has to go through,” Long said.
However, Latvala has fought back against such accusations. The lawmaker, who is not listed as a sponsor or co-sponsor of the committee bill, previously told Florida Politics the legislation has nothing to do with a potential run. He instead contended it just puts Pinellas County in line with most other Florida counties. Latvala also emphasized that the bill was proposed last year too.
“There are multiple examples of County Commissions around the state where, in a redistricting year, when you get thousands of new voters, you run for re-election, because those voters never voted for you,” Latvala said. “When you look, the entire state Senate — all 40 districts — are up in a redistricting year. When you look at Hillsborough County, they make all of their single-member County Commissioners run again.”
He added, “It’s a waste to spend tax dollars on a lawsuit that only affects a couple of them, and I think that Pinellas taxpayers should be outraged at that.”
Latvala said the district he runs for will ultimately be determined by the lawsuit, which the state Representative criticized as “wasteful.” He is deciding between seeking the District 4 seat, currently held by Republican Commissioner Dave Eggers the District 2 seat, which is held by Democratic Commissioner Gerard, and the District 5 seat, currently held by Seel and now up for re-election despite original plans to retire in 2024.
“This is going to be a Republican year because of the leadership of Ron DeSantis and the job of the Legislature, and if you look at the results from two years ago, both Janet Long and Charlie Justice almost lost. And so I think if I ran countywide, there’s not a question that I would beat Pat Gerard,” Latvala added.
“It’s really up to the County Commission and you know, if they want to waste tax dollars, then they’ll get beat in court and then they’ll get beat at the ballot box.”
Pinellas Commissioner Kathleen Peters, who Latvala regards as a friend and a good lawmaker, voted against pursuing legal action along with Eggers, citing the risk of retaliation from the Governor.
“This is reality — you sue the Governor for one of his top priority bills, if you think he will not pull out the veto pen for every single appropriation that we received this year and every single appropriation that will receive in the future, I think that’s being naive,” Peters said. “We’re going to spend resources. I don’t know that this is the best way to spend them. Maybe it’s individual lawsuits versus the county lawsuits.”
Other Commissioners also voiced frustration with the potential for retaliation from the Governor, citing his recent actions against Disney.
“The situation we find ourselves in is a really sad statement on our democracy. We all know that if we decide to file suit that the Governor will get out his veto pen. It’s disgusting that we can accept that and say that that’s okay,” Gerard said.
Seel, who abstained from voting on whether to pursue legal action or not, gave emotional testimony about her time on the Commission.
“It’s been a privilege to serve Pinellas County all these years,” she said. “This all just makes me very sad. I mean, I feel like what’s been stated earlier, that we will be vetoed $30 million, probably if this is the case, and that personally disturbs me a lot.”
While Flowers has already moved forward with filing paperwork to seek re-election — a move she made immediately following the bill signing Monday — the fate of Seel’s District 5 seat is still unclear.