Term Limit Debate Rekindled, As Departure Draws Nigh
While most of the political world is immersed in the partiesí national conventions, some New Yorkers find themselves dealing with an old issue unexpectedly revived by Mayoral speculation: term limits.
The issue was supposedly settled by referenda in 1993 and 1996, when the voters of the City of New York, on Election Day, expressed their preference for a limit of eight years, generally consisting of two four-year terms, for elected officials in New York City government.
The term limits law went into effect with the 2001 elections, and about three-quarters of the Council membership turned over at that time, including Peter F. Vallone, Sr, who had been speaker for 16 years.
The class elected in 2001 will be ineligible to seek re-election in 2009, and that has led to many candidacies for other offices, with term-limited councilmembers seeking borough presidencies and the three city-wide offices: mayor, comptroller and public advocate. Four members are seeking seats in the state legislature.
Until recently, the matter had been considered settled, with Mayor Bloomberg and Council leaders saying they were committed to term limits. The mayor installed clocks in numerous agency offices, timing the countdown to December 31, 2009; today is Day 483. By that reckoning, 118 remain in 2008 (a leap year) and 365 more in 2001.
With the date of departure approaching, the mayor now says he has reconsidered the issue and has reportedly consulted newspaper publishers to obtain their approval of extending his eligibility. Business leaders are said to be urging him to run to maintain stability in government, presumably unattainable under any other candidate.
It is unclear at this time what will emerge from further discussion of term limits by the Council. The deadline for placing a matter on the ballot in 2008 was September 5, sixty days prior to the election on November 4. We note that the current agitation about Council action comes when it is barely too late for the Council to refer the matter to the public.
One could almost conclude that the timing of this change of heart was arranged to exclude the public from participation in the decision. Could it be that some public officials were more interested in extending their own tenure than in allowing the people who elected them to limited terms to decide the issue of whether they were eligible to run ad infinitum.
Mayor Giuliani made a similar effort in the aftermath of 9/11, when he proposed that because of the emergency, the election scheduled for that year should be postponed three months, with the new mayor taking office on April 1, 2002. The plan was rejected by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who held the mayor in low regard because of previous disputes they had over city-state issues.
Widened Gene Pool
This controversy is likely to bubble along for some time, as some Council members, like passengers on the Titanic or other threatened vessels, struggle desperately to escape from the rising waters. They need a rope to crawl off the sinking ship. As luck would have it, the two people who could hear their cries, the Mayor and the Speaker, have promised publicly for seven years to let the old barge sink, as the people of the province have twice voted. Although the Speaker does not oppose a change in the law, she has often said she believes such a change must come from the electorate, not from the Council itself.
It would require an embarrassing repudiation of seven years of public statements, now known as a flip-flop and possibly punishable at the polls, for the two to abort term limits just when the program is about to become effective by sweeping the flotsam and jetsam off the boat, leaving a leaner and cleaner ship with a new captain and dozens of fresh crew members. The better Councilmembers seek higher office, the less able return to their nonprofits or, God forbid, the private sector.
The irony here is that most of the current cohort of Councilmen and Councilwomen hold their seats only because their predecessors were forced from office in 2001 by the term limits law. In some cases, the new members are, literally, descendants of the old ones; Peter F. Vallone, Jr. in Queens, the former Speakerís son, is the most prominent of the younger generation, which includes Diane Foster of the Bronx, daughter of her predecessor, Rev. Wendell Foster, and Erik Martin Dilan of Brooklyn, son of former Councilman (now State Senator), Martin Malave Dilan. Joel Rivera, elected Majority Leader at the age of 22 is the son of former Councilman (now Assemblyman and Bronx County Democratic leader) Jose Rivera and brother of Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera; Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn (since elected to Congress) succeeded her mother, former Councilwoman Una Clarke.
There is nothing illegal or immoral about children being elected to follow their parents in public office. It does, however, indicate the tight grip some Councilmembers hold over their gerrymandered districts, which they would represent in perpetuity if the Lord and the grand juries permitted it.
Term limits broaden the gene pool for councilmembers, allowing elections to be contested before a dynasty comes to a natural or unnatural end. Term limits free up seats more often for genuine, open competition. This could lead to a better, more representative City Council, rather than a patchwork of hereditary fiefdoms.