More Term Limits Turmoil
The issue of changing city term limits just won’t go away.
Over the past month, I have talked to reporters and publishers of dozens of newspapers across this city. We have all heard the rumor that some in the Council intend to overturn the term limit law passed by a referendum of the people.
Although opinions differ as to term limits - some want it to remain unchanged, others think it should be extended by four years and a few want it overturned - there seems to be unanimity among good government groups and the press that any change to the City term limit law must come by referendum of those who enacted the bill originally - the people. The Charter Revision process clearly spells out the methods of returning the question to the people.
A group of publishers - and I’m proudly one of them - had agreed to take that stand right after Election Day, in response to the rumor that the Council intended to act quickly to change the law without going back to the people. The rumor had Gail Brewer of Manhattan introducing the bill, while some like Queens Councilman David Weprin were promising to “take the heat” in exchange for members’ votes for Speaker. Then there was a large group of members who knew and know that the people have expressed their will, quietly hiding behind a variety of catch phrases in a desperate attempt to extend their own terms.
Henry Stern, whose online column is frequently printed on this page, is one of New York City’s brightest elders. His nine years in the City Council and 15 as City Parks Commissioner coupled with his institutional history, analytical mind and keen sense of fair play, has earned him and his organization, New York Civic, a meaningful place at the good government table. To me, Henry (or his preferred Park name of Starquest) is the person I turn to when I need additional insight into or guidance in seeking to bring about positive change to a system that is less than perfect.
Henry and I have chatted quite a number of times about the City term limits law.
In a column originally scheduled for this page and published online at NYCivic.org, Henry wrote:
“The repealer would have to pass with 34 votes, rather than a simple majority of 26 of the 5l members, since Mayor Bloomberg has said he intends to veto any attempt by the legislators to override the referenda of 1993 and 1996. In the end, it will be up to the Court of Appeals to decide whether to give legal blessing to the coup.
“It would be more reasonable for the Council to place on the ballot a plan to extend their limit from eight to 12 years. That proposal has merit, and is certainly within the range of debate. And, if that should be the will of the people, the Councilmembers would not have to scurry so soon for their next employment.”
In response to the rumored Council attempt, Henry reacted:
“They should not succeed in that self-serving effort. If they have distinguished themselves by their Council service, there are other public offices for which they can legitimately compete. They might, if qualified, be considered for the city administration. If all else fails, there is the private sector, where their skills will have to meet the test of the marketplace. Is that prospect too dreadful for our Councilmembers to contemplate?”
But it was Henry’s apparent incorrect theory that brings some hope to the system. Henry wrote last week:
“Some political observers suspect that Gifford Miller, in a parting shot at the voters of the City of New York, will engineer the repeal or modification of term limits in a post-election lame-duck session of the Council. The candidates to succeed him as Speaker will vie with each other in promising support for this attempted putsch, in which the twice-expressed will of the people will be trumped by the very objects of the rule they voted to adopt.
However, this past Friday Henry’s email stated:
“We received a call this afternoon from Steve Sigmund, director of communications for Council Speaker Gifford Miller. He told us that the Speaker would not initiate, participate in, or support any effort by the Council in 2005 to revise or repeal the term limits imposed by public referenda. In 2006, Miller will no longer be a Councilmember, and no one can predict what the next Council will try to do to prolong their tenure at $90,000 a year plus lulus. It is good news, however, that a coup this year is much less likely.”
As someone who has been critical of the Speaker’s ethical behavior, this comes as good news indeed. Although, as a lame duck, he is no longer able to strong arm members, as Speaker, he is able to prevent a quiet, year-end sneak move as some members expected and many hoped for.
This paper, other papers and good government groups (including Henry’s) will be watching and reporting. Should this Council seek to change the term limit law passed by the people, there is only one acceptable way. The only acceptable path is going back to the people.
We hope that serving themselves, dealing for Speaker, and the power of incumbency does not enable a group of fine council members to disregard the will of the people.
We applaud the Speaker for doing the right thing.
We are, if brought to referendum, prepared to air the debate for the people to decide.
And we stand ready, as we have done before, to condemn any unilateral Council attempt.
In a Democracy, the people govern.