Howard Rich's Blog

May 1, 2009

Committee votes 16-2 in favor of term limits

From the Denton Record Chronicle:

A Denton city committee voted 16-2 on Wednesday in favor of keeping term limits for council members, weighing in on a controversy that overshadowed last year’s local election.

“There are pluses and minuses of having term limits, but it seems to me that the pluses of term limits outweigh the minuses,” said committee member Richard Hayes, who voted with the majority. “Political office should not be a legacy.”

The vote was the first major decision from the Term Limits Charter Review Committee, which the City Council created in February to study possible changes to council terms of service. The committee will report to the council, and voters would have to approve any changes as part of a city charter amendment election.

The committee now must decide whether council terms should be longer than two years and whether past years of service should count against council members who switch seats. The next scheduled meeting is May 13.

Denton has faced pressure to clarify its term limits statute since a 2008 lawsuit challenged the city’s traditional interpretation, which essentially lets council members avoid term limits by switching seats. The suit also sought to disqualify Mayor Mark Burroughs, Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp and then-Mayor Perry McNeill for alleged term limit violations.

A state district judge dismissed the suit in October over procedural issues; the plaintiffs have appealed.

Burroughs served on the council from 1998 to 2004 before unseating McNeill in last year’s mayoral race. Kamp resigned in May with a year left in her third consecutive term in District 2 to take an at-large council seat.

The city charter limits the mayor and council members to three consecutive two-year terms, but opinions differ over whether the limit applies per seat or across all seats. City attorneys say past years of service do not count against council members who run for a different seat, including mayor, or sit out a term.

Denton voters approved term limits in 1980 as part of a series of charter changes that also expanded the council from five to seven members and created the current design of four geographical district seats and three at-large positions. The mayor’s seat is one of the three at-large positions.

Some residents advocate strict term limits to avoid entrenched power, while others say six years is too short for council members wishing to master the job or become leaders in regional, state or national government bodies.

Many who voted Wednesday to uphold term limits in Denton said they didn’t think residents would accept a major overhaul of the system.

Committee member Jim Alexander voted with the majority even though he personally opposes term limits, saying he believed the panel’s primary role was to clarify the existing rules. Alexander, a political science professor, is a 16-year veteran of the Denton school board and a former City Council member.

Committee members Pat Cheek and Salty Rishel cast the only votes against term limits, saying the city already has elections and recall initiatives as checks on entrenched power.

“I just think we defeat a lot of good people from staying on the council if we give them term limits,” Cheek said. “If somebody is really bad, we can vote them out.”

Three committee members were absent.

Part of Wednesday’s meeting took place behind closed doors, including a discussion on “committee policy, procedures and rules,” according to the posted agenda. City Attorney Anita Burgess cited an exception to the state’s open meetings law that allows government bodies to receive legal advice in a closed session.

Burgess said part of the discussion involved Section 2-83 of the Denton Code of Ordinances. That code deals with general rules for city boards and commissions, including what constitutes a quorum. The 45-minute closed session also involved a review of legal opinions on term limits and terms of service, according to the agenda.

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