Gardens resident sues to stop term limits questions on March ballot

6:38 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 Local
Palm Beach Gardens resident Sid Dinerstein and attorney James D’Loughy discuss a lawsuit Dinerstein filed against Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach Gardens Clerk Patricia Snider to block four questions from appearing on the ballot March 13. They met at the Palm Beach Gardens City Hall at noon Tuesday, shortly after the lawsuit was filed. (Sarah Peters/The Palm Beach Post)

An ongoing dispute over term limits that dates back to 2014 has landed the city in court yet again.

A staunch term limits supporter is suing to stop an off-year election in which voters will decide whether to ease the restrictions on how long a Palm Beach Gardens City Council member can serve.

RELATED: Term limit tweak among 4 questions on ballot

Attorney James D’Loughy filed the legal challenge Tuesday morning on behalf of Sid Dinerstein, a former Palm Beach County Republican Party chairman who pushed for term limits that voters approved in 2014.

RELATED: What was decided at contentious Gardens council meeting on term limits

Only two of the four ballot questions relate directly to term limits, but Dinerstein is challenging them all. The suit names the city, Clerk Patricia Snider and Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher.

D’Loughy and Dinerstein argue the ballot questions are misleading and that by putting them to voters in the March 13 election in which there are no city council seats up for grabs, the council will disenfranchise the 16,000 voters who supported term limits in the November 2014 election.

“Taxpayer money is being squandered on a special election being called by a runaway council who only has their own interests in mind,” D’Loughy said outside of City Hall, shortly after filing the lawsuit online.

The Council members and City Attorney Max Lohman have said they have no choice but to put the questions on the March ballot because Bucher won’t allow municipal questions in November and doesn’t like to take them in August because it adds too many pages. Bucher declined to comment on the litigation.

A city spokeswoman said the questions are written to comply with election law and explain the proposed changes. They are consistent with the policies of other cities in Florida, and some will save money, city spokeswoman Candice Temple said in a statement.

Among the cost-saving measures is a proposal to name the highest vote-getter in council elections the winner, even if the candidate doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote. That would eliminate runoff elections that cost more than $80,000. Critics say it also would make it easier for candidates to get elected.

Dinerstein said it’s “hypocritical” for the city to hold a vote on eliminating “so-called wasteful and expensive runoff elections” in an election that has no candidates.

The lawsuit creates a false perception that term limits will be eliminated, Temple said.

If approved, the term limits would be altered but not eliminated. One question would allow council members to serve three uninterrupted, three-year terms instead of two and another would establish that council members who have been forced out by term limits can run again after sitting out three years.

Currently, past council members can never run again, but sitting members could run again after taking a break for a year.

Voters can study the questions for themselves and decide whether or not they want to approve them, Temple said. The city has set aside $60,000 for Cornerstone Solutions to do a public education campaign, but the city will approve the expenses on an as-needed basis, she said.

In 2014, voters said no one should be elected to council for more than two consecutive full terms. They also said the rules should be retroactive, which forced a turnover of all five seats in the past two elections.

It required a lawsuit and a late-night meeting of lawyers on the eve of a hearing to get those questions on a November ballot.

In 2016, the courts had to settle a dispute over whether term limits should have prevented longtime Councilman David Levy from seeking re-election and who was the rightful winner of a court-ordered runoff election.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin ruled that now-Councilman Carl Woods was the winner because he was the only eligible candidate. An appeals court found Levy should never have been allowed to run again because council terms he served before resigning to unsuccessfully run for Palm Beach County Commission counted against the limits.