Referendum For Change
A Borough On The Brink Of Term Limits
By RICHARD SCHACK
By this time next year, the city will have a new mayor and comptroller,
and Queens will have a new borough president, but a bill introduced into the City Council
last week has cast a doubt on whether or not Queens council-members will stay on the
list of term limited positions.
The decision to impose term limits on members of the
city council and the borough presidents was made by the people of Queens and the rest of
Two referenda on term limits were included on voting machines in 1993
The first referendum was on the ballot in 1993. The new law, limiting
New York City councilmembers to two consecutive four-year terms, was voted in by the
In 1996, Council Speaker Peter Vallone introduced a second referendum
on the ballot that would have "staggered" the law, extending it to three,
four-year terms. This referendum was turned down by voters.
Last week, a bill was introduced by councilmembers which
said that in the good interest of the citizens of New York, the vote of the people needed
to be changed by the legislator.
The complete text of the bill is reprinted below.
In order to overturn term limits, the City Council must clear some
hurdles. First, the City Councils Government Operations Committee must call a public
hearing to approve or disapprove the bill. No public hearing has been scheduled yet.
The Government Operations Committee is made of nine council-members,
which is chaired by Brooklyn Council Member Mary Pinkett.
One of the councilmembers may call for a motion to discharge, in which
case the bill goes straight to the council.
Whether the bill gets approved by the committee or gets sent straight
to the full council, the bill must obtain 26 council-member votes to pass.
If the bill gets passed by the council, it then must go to Mayor
Giuliani to be cleared. Giuliani may do one of three things. He may ignore the bill, sign
it into law, or veto it. If Giuliani ignores the bill for more than 30 days, then it gets
signed into law. If Giuliani should veto the bill, then it gets passed back to the
When the bill gets back to the Council, they can override it with a
two-thirds majority vote.
Borough President Claire Shulman
"I believe theyre doing the wrong thing by attempting to
overturn the current term limit laws. It should go back to the public as another
referendum. I dont know if its all self-serving legislation of the
councilmembers Ive spoke to, it really seems some of them truly are thinking about
the future of the city."
Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Feb. 12 City Hall press conference)
"I havent really thought about the bill to overturn term
limits. I usually wait until legislation passes to decide whether I will veto something.
Ill wait until the bill is presented to me and we will have a hearing first.
"I support term limits for executive decisions. I supported both
referendums. I do, however, think the limit for New York City should be three terms. It
will be very difficult for the new mayor with a nearly entirely new City Council."
Council member Julia Harrison (For) - Elected 1985
"Term limits are bad for city. I have people asking me
why dont you run again? Well, Im not running again. Thats
not why Im doing this. I am speaking from conviction. Term limits upset the
occurrence of normal elections and stunts the voters rights for preferences. The
incumbents dont always have to win. For Gods sake, the city matches every
dollar raised four to one. I am scared about the possible effect on the city. Term limits
have cities in constant states of being upset.
"Here, you are losing 36 councilmembers including their support
and research staff, borough presidents, the comptroller and mayor. That cannot bode well
for the operations of the city. The jobs will now be in the hands of neophytes."
Councilman Walter McCaffrey (For) - Elected 1985
"I dont think we need an explanation to explain why we
are looking to overturn the current term limit laws. As far is it being self-serving
legislation, its not because I dont plan on running again. Term limits are
undemocratic. It is unfortunate, but many individuals do not understand the concept of
what this will do to the city. I am optimistic about the chances of it passing."
Councilman John Sabini (For) - Elected 1991
"I am doing this because I think term limits are bad for the
city and bad for Queens. Its bad public policy. Instead of rewarding people for
experience they are being punished for it. As far as doing this only to save my job,
Im not going to respond to that because thats what you guys will write anyway.
I had a career before this and Ill have a career after this."
Councilmember Juanita Watkins (For) - Elected 1991
"Term limits are bad public policy. This whole movement for
term limits was funded by a million-aire and was voted on after a multi-million dollar
campaign. Im not saying the people are stupid, although many didnt under-stand
it as they thought some councilmembers were exempt."
Councilman Michael Abel (Opposed) - Elected 1991
"I still havent seen a copy of the bill. Im not
too optimistic about the chances of the bill passing. Even though there are 22 sponsors,
it all depends on the mayor. If he vetoes it, the Council would need 36 votes to override
the veto and I dont think that would happen. But even if the mayor doesnt
veto, there will be a lengthy court fight and candidates must sign up for campaign finance
in May. Im not in favor of term limits per se, but Im not favoring this bill
because Im representing the people of my district."
Councilman Sheldon Leffler (Opposed) - Elected 1977
"The principle basis of our government is that sovereignty
lies within the people themselves. Norm-ally the elected representatives are the
embodiment of this sovereignty. However, a citywide referendum is clearly a greater
indicator of the peoples vote than a majority vote of this body. To seek to overturn
the peoples will stated by them twice and by a substantial majority
undermines our role as the peoples representative and casts a cloud of suspicion
over our ability to act adequately in the peoples interests. Even more disturbing is
that the bill only applies to members of this body and not all the other city
representatives who have had their terms limited by the city. This gives the appearance
the bill is merely self-serving."
Councilman Tom Ognibene (Opposed) - Elected 1991
"I wouldnt vote in favor of over-turning the current
term limit laws. Although I think its a failed system, the people have spoken. It
would be a terrible mistake if passed. End of story."
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (Unsure) - Elected 1991
"My gut reaction to the bill to overturn term limits was no,
and that is where I still stand. I am opposed to term limits as policy but I would feel a
little uncomfortable overturning the will of my constituents. Others have said people in
their district didnt vote in favor I dont know if thats true or
Councilman Morton Povman (Unsure) - Elected 1971
"Now that the mayor is entertaining supporting the bill to
overturn term limits again, Im not sure how Id vote right now. If the mayor
signs the bill, so will I. Im looking to the mayor for guidance as far as this is
The following did not respond to Tribune calls requesting
comment after the bill was introduced. However, before last weeks discus-sion of the
bill, these Queens councilpeople told the Tribune:
Council Speaker Peter Vallone (Opposed) - Elected 1973
The public has spoken twice.
Council member Helen Marshall (For) - Elected 1991
"I think its bad public policy I would welcome
the opportunity to overturn term limits."
Councilman Al Stabile (For) - Elected 1993
"Im voting in favor of the bill to overturn term
limits. I would have liked to have seen it staggered in the 1996 referendum. Removing all
36 council members is an injustice to New York City. There will be no Peter Vallone to
teach the new guys whats going on, no one with that much seniority. I also worry
about my district I hope the next guy does a good job."
Councilman Archie Spigner (Opposed) - Elected 1973
"Im clearly opposed to term limits as public policy, I
think its a bad one. I would be reluctant to join any bill to overturn term limits
because of the poor prospects of it passing. With time running out, a lot of people are
facing reality right now."
Councilman Thomas White Jr. (For) - Elected 1991
"Women, Blacks and Latinos have reached a position of power in the City
Council, maybe even dominance. Now that its our turn, the rules change in the middle
of the game. Term limits take the right of the people to vote for who they want out of
their hands. By supporting a bill to overturn term limits, Im representing my
district. They didnt vote for it."
Term Limits & The Law
By NICK BUGLIONE
Legal question marks surround the efforts
of 22 council members seeking to quash a referendum the people voted in favor of to
establish two-term limits on city elected officials.
While some experts believe it to be within
the City Councils bounds to overturn the referendum, others do not view the issue as
cut and dry.
"Subject to being pre-cleared, I think
it can be done," said lawyer Larry Mandelker, chair of the election law committee of
the Association of the Bar of New York City.
According to Mandelker, the Council can
repeal the referendum, however federal officials, under the Voting Rights Act, must first
approve their proposal.
Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act
states that change in voting practice or procedure must first be submitted for approval by
the Justice Department.
"They then decide whether the effect
of this elimination of term limits will have a discriminatory impact on minority
voters," said Mandelker, adding that though the Council has not yet done so he
believes "that this bill will be submitted for pre-clearance."
However, political analyst and publisher of
the Legislative Gazette Alan Chartock disagreed that the impending repeal would fall under
the Voting Rights Act.
Stating that the legality of the bill is
"murky," Chartock could not comment on whether a lawsuit seeking to overturn a
possible repeal would be viable.
"I dont know," said
Chartock, adding that the wording of the approved term limit referendum is at the heart of
the issue. "Most referenda are set up with a back door so that if it is passed
legislature, if they have the guts, can [repeal] it."
He went on to note that while overturning
referenda often has no legal implications, the political risk is substantial.
"I always knew it would come to
this," said Chartock. "There is nothing more salient to a politician than
keeping his or her job."
Nevertheless, New Yorkers for Term
Limitsthe motivating organization behind the referendumalong with principal
backer and cosmetic mogul Ronald Lauder are gearing up to file suit should the
Councils bill pass.
"Were fully preparing for a
lawsuit," said Jeanine Kemm, spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Term Limits. "We
would hope the will of one million New Yorkers who cast votes in two elections for this
would prevail over the level headed thinkers in the Council."
Kemm added that the organization has
already obtained lawyers, and feels that they have a legitimate chance of winning a
lawsuit. "Well do whatever it takes to defend the will of one million
The City Council maintains that the
referendum will have a negative impact on voters, particularly minorities whose
term-limited representatives have gained seniority and committee chairs.
Excerpts Of The Term Limits
Int. No. 880
By Council Members Michels, Marshall,
Linares, Perkins, Lopez, Sabini, Clarke, Cruz, Eisland, Freed, Harrison, Henry, Lasher,
Malave-Dilan, McCaffrey, Robinson, Robles, Stabile, Warden, Watkins, White and Wooten.
Be it enacted by the Council as follows:
Section 1. Legislative findings and intent.
The City Council has reviewed and considered the Charter provision imposing artificial
term limits on councilmembers and hereby finds that serious unintended consequences would
result from its implementation. Specifically, under the current Charter, voters in up to
35 council districts would be denied the right to vote for their incumbent councilmembers,
while voters in 16 council districts would be able to vote for incumbent members. As a
result of this scheme, a significant number of senior members including the Speaker and
all committee chairs would be arbitrarily removed from office at the same time. The impact
of this forced exodus falls heavily on "minority" voters and the
"minority" communities of the City, whose representatives have gained seniority
and committee chairs and other leadership positions in recent years as a result of changes
made in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation.
The Council further finds that artificial
term limits for legislators would serve no useful purpose since elections themselves
provide the voters with a full opportunity to reject or retain incumbent officeholders.
Term limits would deprive the electorate of the right to democratically elect local
representatives of its own choosing.
The Council further finds that the
Charters artificial term limits provisions would cause the wholesale dumping of the
"institutional memory" and long-term perspective of the City Council . . .
The Council acknowledges that term limits
were adopted pursuant to a public referendum and that such enactments should not be
lightly overturned or modified; however, the Council is equally mindful that it has a duty
under the United States Constitution, the New York State Constitution and the City Charter
to consider the fundamental interests of all the people and to ensure that the right of
each individual voter to cast a ballot for a candidate of his or her choice is preserved .
Section 2. Section 1137 of the New York
City Charter, as added by vote of the electors on November 2, 1993, is amended to read as
§1137. Public policy. It is hereby
declared to be the public policy of the city of New York to limit to not more than eight
consecutive years the time elected officials can serve as mayor, public advocate,
comptroller[,] and borough president [and council member] so that these
elected representatives are "citizen representatives" who are responsive to the
needs of the people and are not career politicians.
Section 3. Section 1138 of the New York
City Charter, as added by vote of the electors on November 2, 1993, is amended to read as
§1138. Term limits. Notwithstanding
any provision to the contrary contained in this charter, no person shall be eligible to be
elected to or serve in the office of mayor, public advocate, comptroller[,] or
borough president [or council member] if that person had previously held such office for
two or more full consecutive terms [(including in the case of council member at least one
four-year term)], unless one full term or more has elapsed since that person last held
such office; provided, however, that in calculating the number of consecutive terms a
person has served, only terms commencing on or after January 1, 1994 shall be counted.
Section 4. This local law shall take effect