Howard Rich's Blog

September 10, 2008

NY Times Article on Term Limits in NYC

Filed under: Uncategorized — howierich @ 1:13 pm
September 10, 2008

Across Country, New Challenges to Term Limits

 

 

A decade after communities around the country adopted term limits to force entrenched politicians from office, at least two dozen local governments are suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, with legislative bodies from New York City to Tacoma, Wash., trying to overturn or tweak the laws.

The campaigns against term limits, should they succeed, would drastically change the process by which millions of Americans elect a variety of their leaders — and how much power those leaders can amass once in office.

The elected leaders, some of whom supported term limits when they were imposed, argue that the limits severely hamper government and leave the officials little time to figure out the mechanics of their office. That forces them to gravitate toward small-bore projects that can be done quickly, rather than anything visionary that would take years to achieve.

In what could be called the second-term itch, they are pushing to revise the laws so they can serve another term (New York City and Rowlett, Tex.) or to repeal them so they can seek re-election indefinitely (State College, Pa., and Daytona Beach Shores, Fla.).

“It has been an unmitigated disaster for the city,” said Phil Hardberger, the departing mayor of San Antonio, who supports a November referendum to lengthen term limits to four two-year terms from two.

“The learning curve of how city government works and how to get things done is steep, but when you keep putting people in, and throwing them out, there is very little accountability,” he added. “We do a lot of churning here, but we don’t produce a lot of butter.”

The term limits movement swept across the country in the early 1990s at a moment of intense frustration with American politics. In Congress, Republicans like Newt Gingrich made the limits a central theme of their Contract With America, and it soon trickled down to local governments.

Advocacy groups, like U.S. Term Limits, sprung up to push cities and states to pass the new laws. The backers of term limits argued that a broken government needed to be fixed with fresh faces, uncorrupted by money and politics; supporters like Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, helped put the term-limit proposals on the ballot, scoring victories in New York City and 11 other municipalities in New York State.

Now, “there is definitely a backlash against it,” said John Clayton Thomas, a professor of public administration at Georgia State University who has written extensively about term limits.

Some officials pushing the changes say the turnover created by term limits robs an elected body of valuable institutional memory. In Tacoma, four of the city’s nine council members will be forced from office by January 2010 after completion of their second four-year terms. That worries Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, who has spent years pushing for a $2 million pedestrian and bike trail, among other projects.

“That is when I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ If I go away, and it’s not completed, what will happen?” she said.

As a result, Ms. Ladenburg shepherded a November referendum to overturn term limits. “The public wonders why we don’t get things done. Well, you have to be there awhile to get things done.”

In Rowlett, Tex., a Dallas suburb of 55,000 people, Mayor John E. Harper says that limits of two three-year terms make it difficult for local officials to land coveted positions on national organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors or the National League of Cities. Belonging to such groups mean that “you’re sitting at the table discussing the pros and cons of policy on energy, immigration, health insurance and everything else,” he said.

Voters in Rowlett will decide in a November referendum whether to extend the limits to three terms.

Term limits also tend to make local officials think constantly about re-election and their next career move, making fund-raising and politicking more of a priority, said Mayor A. C. Wharton of Shelby County, Tenn., which encompasses Memphis.

Moreover, Mr. Wharton continued, the measures leave too much power in the hands of civil servants.

“We call those folks the We Bees, as in, ‘We be here when he’s gone,’ ” said Mr. Wharton, whose term expires in 2010. “It turns the running of government, to a large degree, to individuals who’ve never been elected by anybody.”

It is not just long-serving legislators, fearful they will soon lose a job, who oppose term limits.

In State College, Pa., Peter Morris, who was elected to the seven-member Borough Council last year, said he owes his job to term limits because they forced popular incumbents out of office. Nevertheless, his experience in local government has turned him into an outspoken opponent of them. Mr. Morris said he and three other new members of the council lack experience on everything from how to craft an annual budget to the history behind a complex redevelopment project.

Most places trying to relax term limits are trying to do so via the ballot box, with several referendums due in November, including one in South Dakota, where a ballot question would abolish the limits for state legislators.

Officials in New York City, however, are contemplating the unusual method of changing term limits through the City Council, rather than through popular vote. That may be easier to push through, given that voters would be likely to resist such a change, having supported term limits in 1993 and 1996. But it is also far more controversial.

“I like Bloomberg, but he looks like a politician if he does it, as opposed to a guy who came in to reform New York City,” Howard Rich, chairman of U.S. Term Limits, said of New York City’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. “To bypass the will of the people without their permission strikes me as profoundly selfish and undemocratic.”

There is precedent for what New York is considering. In 2001, the D.C. Council in Washington overturned a term limits law that had been approved by voters seven years earlier. Despite working around voters, council members experienced no serious repercussions, said Councilman Jack Evans, who led the effort. He pointed to his own re-election two years later. “Nobody ever raised it — and I was the guy who proposed it,” he said.

Mr. Evans said it helped to overturn term limits early in a two-year term. “Do it quickly and get it out of the way,” he said. “People have a short-term memory.”

That is not a luxury New York City Council members or Mr. Bloomberg have, however. They are considering changing term limits in the third year of a four-year term.

To the staunchest supporters of term limits, the misgivings being expressed are predictable, coming from endangered officials who care primarily about their own political futures, not the welfare of the public.

Mr. Rich noted that polls have consistently demonstrated that most people still support term limits. Currently, 37 governors, 15 state legislatures and 9 of the country’s 10 most populous cities face term limits, and recent ballot initiatives to alter them, including one in California in February, have failed.

One thing supporters and opponents mainly share is an uneasiness with incumbent politicians, like those in New York, trying to change term limits laws in a way that would directly benefit them.

San Antonio and Rowlett have stipulated that any changes apply only to future officeholders, or at least be postponed for a couple of years. Asked about New York’s effort, Mr. Harper, the mayor of Rowlett, said: “I would not be in favor of that. We ought not to do end runs around the ground rules.”

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