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House panel narrowly approves term limits for county officers

Despite vocal opposition from those most affected by the proposal, a House subcommittee narrowly approved legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to impose term limits on county-level officials.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, aims to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. If voters approve, they would eliminate ambiguity in the state constitution that has caused courts to toss out term limits on county commissioners and constitutional officers like sheriffs, property appraisers, tax collectors and supervisors of elections in some counties.

House Bill 785 was narrowly approved by the Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee on an 8-7 vote (according to my unofficial tally).

In expressing his support, Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, pointed out that the people speaking against the bill during Tuesday's committee meeting represented those whose positions would be threatened by the change, not voters.

“There’s not citizens here telling us they think this is a bad idea,” he said.

However, some members of the committee expressed concern about term limits in general and especially when it comes to constitutional officers. They said the institutional knowledge required by some of these positions would be harmed by frequent turnover. Some said the Legislature's own term limits were an example of the unintended consequences, including the rising influence of lobbyists.

 “I’m just firmly against term limits," Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, said.

Representatives from the Florida Sheriff’s Association, the state’s supervisors of elections, Florida Tax Collectors Association and Property Appraisers Association of Florida all spoke in opposition. Several argued that there is already an option in place for some counties to impose term limits on elected leaders by transferring duties to newly formed charter officer positions. They also said that county commissioners and constitutional officers can be voted out of office every time they come up for re-election.

However, a slight majority on the panel said a fix is needed.

“Shouldn’t we at the state level clear up that ambiguity then present it to the voters to fix that, to cure it?” Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami Beach, said.