The Will Of The People: Grassroots Effort To Halt Council
Andrew Arrieta, a Working Families Party field representative, petitioned Astoria residents on Friday.
By Michael Lanza
Undecided City Council members were put on notice this week as they prepared to vote on a proposal to overturn the City’s term-limits law.
The Working Families Party, the City’s largest third-party with nearly 75,000 votes cast in the 2006 elections, canvassed the districts of undecided council members with a message – “it’s our decision.”
“We are trying to make sure that term limits are kept in the hands of voters. We think that New Yorkers have voted twice on this and made it totally clear what their opinion is. If they want to change their minds, that’s fine. As long is it’s up to us the voters, not the politicians who stand to benefit,” WFP spokesman Dan Levitan said. “Our campaign is to make sure voters have a chance to vote their opinion before the city council takes their voice away. There’s a very high number of people not saying publicly whether or not they’re going to vote for Mayor Bloomberg’s or Speaker Quinn’s bill. People are not telling their constituents which way they’re going.”
Without the support of powerful figures like billionaire Ronald Lauder, who funded the campaign to enact term-limits in 1993 but has since sided with Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s extension proposal, opponents of the bill are turning to the voters themselves to stop the legislation. The WFP launched a grassroots petition last week – hitting the streets and launching a Web site, www.itsourdecision.org, to let undecided council members know where their constituents stand. So far they’ve gathered nearly 10,000 signatures citywide against the legislation.
“We hope that City Council members see the enormous outpouring of public anger about this proposal from the mayor,” Levitan said. “Voters really want this to be kept in their own hands and not stripped from them by the politicians.”
The WFP is planning to stage petitions in the districts of each of Queens’ six undecided council members: Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), Melinda Katz (D- Forest Hills), Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona), James Sanders (D-Laurelton) and Tom White (D-South Ozone Park). Volunteers and representatives went to Vallone’s district on Friday, where they gathered approximately 300 signatures in an afternoon.
The rest of Queens’ council members – except for Leroy Comrie (D-Jamaica) – have publicly stated that they oppose the bill that would override the will of the voters. Comrie has said that he never agreed with the concept of term limits in the first place, and that the massive campaign that led to the two referenda was inherently unfair because there was very little vocal support to those who opposed Ron Lauder’s initiative.
With a vote on the measure expected by next Tuesday, pressure is mounting for undecided council members to make their thoughts public.
“I have given this issue a lot of thought. Unlike many other elected officials, I was involved in the Civil Rights movement and in securing the right to vote,” White said. “I respect the voters. It’s not a matter of term limits. It is a matter of respecting the vote. I don’t think that you can look at diluting what people have fought and died for.”
In canvassing his constituents, White said he has seen a 50-50 split on their responses.
“I still have to give it some thought,” he said.
But for opponents of the bill, there’s nothing to think about. The only way to extend term limits, they say, is through another public referendum.
“If they want to change term limits, they should have an election, put it on the ballot and do it,” Levitan said. “There’s no reason that we can’t have a special election. If you want to change something that the voters have spoken on – fine. You let them do it.”
Although it’s too late to place a referendum on November’s ballot, a special election could be organized in as little as 90-days.
“I don’t understand why there isn’t time to put a special election on the ballot – there is.” City Comptroller Bill Thompson, a 2009 mayoral candidate and vocal critic of the term-limits legislation, said. “Instead of 52 people making a decision for us, 8 million New Yorkers could decide.”
The council will hold two public hearings, Thursday at 1 p.m. and Friday at 10 a.m., on the proposal in the City Hall Council Chambers. Those unable to attend can submit their testimony via e-mail at email@example.com.