Close Insider Term Limit Loophole
By HENRY STERN
The Charter Revision Commission was intended, when it was appointed, to offer the public the opportunity to decide the matter of term limits, by offering the choice of a two-term or three-term limit. The Commission did offer that choice, but added a poison pill provision that the two-term limit not take effect until 2021, ten years into the uncertain future.
The effect of delaying the date by a decade was to create a loophole in the system, which would allow every incumbent elected official who is not now on their third term to be eligible for one. In all, this means that 34 City Council incumbents will again wriggle free from the two-term restriction that was thrice approved by the voters (in 1993, 1996 and 2010).
A group of New Yorkers has organized with the goal of closing this loophole and securing “Term Limits Now.” To do this, the Charter must be amended to eliminate the provision which appears in the Commission’s abstract as:
“The new law would affect City officials elected after the general election in November, 2010 so that current elected officials would remain subject to the present three-term limit.”
We believe there is no valid reason to exempt incumbents from the two-term limit. Indeed, they are the principal individuals the referendum was intended to affect in the first place.
Of course, it is entirely logical and predictable that these people want to stay in office as long as they can. We are in a period of high unemployment and many of the legislators’ prior experience is as neighborhood activists, rather than as practitioners of more established professions.
The two-term standard is simple and direct. It is part of the Constitution of the United States. A two-term limit for governors is the law in 36 states.
Without extended discussion of the advantages of term limits, one stands to mind that is rarely mentioned. If there is a defined limit, candidates arise to run for the seat that will be open. If there is no limit, the incumbent is likely to run until he loses to a challenger, who may not be the best person to succeed him.
For example, when Ed Koch ran for a fourth term, he lost to David Dinkins. When Mario Cuomo ran for a fourth term, he lost to George Pataki. If term limits had been in effect, others could have competed without attacking the incumbent.
The principal reason for the petition drive, however, is not the difference between two and three terms. The motive is to protest the subversion of the public’s vote for two terms, first by the self-serving Council vote in 2008, in which the incumbents extended their own eligibility, and the poison pill in the 2010 charter revision, in which the two-term alternative presented to the people was saddled with a ten-year delay in implementation.
Twice the insiders have frustrated the public’s desire, expressed at the polls, for a two-term limit. Too often in recent years, governments have expressed their disregard for the public by imposing new regulations and restrictions, while exempting themselves from compliance. There is a national sense that government is growing larger and increasingly less representative of the people and more beholden to the elites and lobbyists, whether on the left or the right.
We are not, however, embarking on an ideological crusade. We also recognize that there are more important issues out there to resolve. We simply want to right a wrong in a situation where we believe that insiders have overstepped, placing their personal interest above the will of the public.
One of the seven founding members of the coalition to enact term limits now is Councilman Eric Ulrich of Queens. Ulrich, a 25-year-old reformer, has signed on in support of our referendum, despite that fact that he is one of the 34 incumbents who are the beneficiaries of this loophole.
“No one is indispensable, including yours truly,” said Councilman Ulrich at the press conference announcing our public referendum on the steps of City Hall. “To suggest that I need to be on the City Council for 12 years or the sky is going to fall is ridiculous.”
When was the last time you heard a politician talk like that?
The Term Limits Now coalition will reach out to you and every other voter in the City of New York to gather support for this public referendum. If we receive it, the issue will be on the ballot and the public will have the opportunity to see that its will is carried out.
This effort will not be easy. In order to get the referendum on the ballot, we will need 30,000 signatures in the first round of petitioning and 15,000 in the second. If we succeed, it will be only the second public referendum brought before the people in New York City history, after Ronald Lauder’s 1993 initiative that initially established term limits.
However, we are optimistic that the more New Yorkers who learn how they have been duped, the more will join us in righting this wrong. We are optimistic that with your help signing our petition, collecting signatures, and spreading the word to all of your fellow New Yorkers that we will surmount the daunting odds and succeed in our undertaking to restore a little bit of faith in the power of the voter and the rule of law.StarQuest@NYCivic.org
Petition to Seek Term Limits Now, No Delay to 2021
By HENRY STERN
An effort to restore the two-term limit for elected city officials this year was launched last week at a news conference on the steps of City Hall.
Speaking as one of the “launchers,” we hope the cause will be joined by tens of thousands of New Yorkers. It is intended to bring about a referendum in November 2011, on whether the two-term limit, adopted by a 74-26 last month, will go into effect at the next Council election, in 2013, or will be delayed eight years. If it is, the people who voted to extend their own eligibility will enjoy the fruits of their self-interested tampering with the Charter.
We believe that two terms means just that, eight years, and that the will of the public should take effect as soon as practical, at the next election. The incumbents want it postponed eight years, so they will have time to fiddle with the rule and seek its reversal. A last-minute machination on the Charter Revision Commission added the eight-year delay. Our purpose is to secure a referendum, so that the people will have a chance to vote on whether or not they want the restoration of the two-term limit to take effect promptly.
Although the principles involved are simple: fair play and rule by the people, the machinations of the insiders who consider their own incumbency the ultimate public good have given the struggle a lengthy and convoluted history. For those patient souls who are interested in the background, here it is.
The tale begins in 1993, when Ronald Lauder, who had been a mayoral candidate in 1989, funded a petition drive for a referendum on whether elected city officials (the three who run city wide, the five borough presidents and the 51 councilmembers) should be subject to a two-term limit. Lauder’s proposal was approved by the voters, 59 to 41 percent to become effective in 2001.
In 1996, the City Council, concerned with the approaching deadline, placed a referendum on the ballot proposing that the limit of two terms be extended to three terms. Their proposal was defeated at the polls, by a 54-46 margin.
In 2001, the two-term limit took effect. Thirty-seven of the 51 councilmembers were newly elected. Many were chosen only because the two-term limit had removed their predecessors. The new members were elected under a City Charter provision under which they could serve just two terms.
The Charter provides that it can be amended by vote of the people in referendum. The mayor has the power to appoint a Charter Revision Commission, which has the authority to submit proposals to the public in a referen-dum. The mayor and the city council can also propose referenda to amend the charter. But they also have the power to change the Charter themselves, without a referendum, as long as the change does not affect their powers or other immutable provisions.
In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg promised publicly that he would appoint a Charter Revision Commission in the next year to conduct a broad review of city operations and structure. Whatever proposals they made were supposed to go to referendum in 2008, in time to apply to the 2009 elections, at which time term limits could be reconsidered, extended, or modified, if that were the wish of the voters.
However, after it was too late for anything to be put on the ballot, a councilmember, by request of Mayor Bloomberg, introduced legislation into the City Council which would amend the charter to allow elected city officials to serve three terms instead of two. Everyone whose tenure was supposed to end in 2009 would then be able to serve through 2013.
The Mayor argued that the fiscal crisis that New York City was facing prompted his change of heart, and that his business experience uniquely qualified him to lead in what admittedly were difficult times. They still are.
The mandatory public hearings were held on the Charter amendment, with a huge majority of speakers opposing the change. The Council passed the bill and the mayor signed it on November 3, 2008. At the time, the mayor said that the issue of term limits would be taken up by a new Charter commission.
The 2010 commission, headed by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, was appointed by the Mayor. It recommended a number of minor improvements. The most controversial issue, term limits, proved difficult to resolve.
In the end, the Commission adopted Charter amendments, including sending to the public a proposal to change the term limit for city elected officials from the three that had been added to the Charter by the mayor and council in 2008, under which the 2009 election had been conducted, to two, as the voters had decided in 1993 and 1996.
However, a kicker was added to the draft Charter relatively late in the process. The effective date of the two term limit was postponed to 2021, a political lifetime for a generation of candidates. All the councilmembers who voted to extend their own terms in 2008 were made eligible to seek a third term. Those newly elected in 2009 would also be able to serve twelve years. Reformers supported the new Charter because, if it were defeated, members could serve for three terms forever.
This brings us to today.StarQuest@NYCivic.org