PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law creating the nation's only election crimes police unit. The very next day, the Pinellas County Commission voted to sue the Sunshine State, challenging the legality of the legislation.
The bill creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the Florida Department of State that would review fraud allegations and conduct preliminary investigations. DeSantis is required to appoint a group of special officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who would be tasked with pursuing the election law violations.
State law currently allows the governor to appoint officers to investigate violations of election law but does not require him to do so.
But that's not all the new law does — there's also a provision that changes county commission elections.
Under the new law, single-member districts must run for re-election immediately following redistricting.
The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners redistricted At Large and Single Member districts at the Dec. 7 county commission meeting. This means two county commissioners who were elected for four-year terms will now have to run for re-election after only serving two years.
"In my opinion, it singles out specifically Pinellas County," Flowers said at Tuesday's county commission meeting discussing the new law. "If it was something that was across the board for all 67 counties, I may have a different take on it."
The redistricting elections have several categories of exemption, including:
- Miami-Dade County.
- Any non-charter county.
- Any county the charter of which limits the number of terms a commissioner may serve.
- Any county in which voters have never approved a charter amendment limiting the number of terms a commissioner can serve.
"I am somewhat disappointed because my boundary lines didn't really change," Flowers said. "So to say that this is being done because I have people that I'm representing that did not have a chance to vote for me, that is incorrect... I'm disappointed."
Not all commissioners were on board with the county suing the state over the bill. County Commissioner Kathleen Peters (District 6) said the lawsuit may be better suited on an individual basis instead of using county resources to take on DeSantis.
"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 receive this year and every single appropriate that we will receive in the future, I think that's being naive," Peters said.
Peters said the redistricting impacted the constituents she answers to. She agreed with Flowers that the bill was narrowly written to target Pinellas County.
Commissioner Janet Long (District 1 and vice-chair) said the bill took the power away from the county when it was passed on a state level and only impacts Pinellas.
"This is about right and wrong and a principle and a bully is a bully," Long said in reference to DeSantis. "At what point do you say enough is enough?"
"This is to benefit one person and one person only, who wants to be here and not have to go through the rigors of everything everyone else has to go through," Long said regarding Representative Chris Latvala, a Republican House representative of Clearwater.
Last year, Latvala filed to run for District 5 in the 2024 election. His campaign website said, "Term-limited state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has filed to run in 2024 for the District 4 county commission seat now held by Karen Seel."
"Latvala said he chose the 2024 race rather than running for a countywide seat coming open next year so he could avoid having to run a countywide campaign while finishing his last term in the state House," his website reads.
Under this new law, he can run for Seel's seat this year, not having to wait until Seel's full term is complete in 2024.
"This all makes me very sad because it's been a privilege to serve Pinellas County all these years," Seel said. "It's been a privilege to be a part of this board..."
Multiple county commissioners referenced how this law not only specifically targeted Pinellas County but also Commissioner Seel.
"I am going to register a voting conflict," Seel said, removing herself from deciding if the county should sue the state of Florida. Seel ended her remarks with a broken voice, thanking her commissioners for their words of support.
County commissioners Charlie Justice, Janet Long, Rene Flowers, and Pat Gerard voted in favor of the lawsuit. County commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voted against a lawsuit.
10 Tampa Bay reached out to Commissioner Seel for additional comment. She declined, citing the pending litigation.