Term Limits Judged:
Are City Politicians
Needy, Greedy or Both?
Henry J. Stern
November 2, 2009
Today is the day before the mayoral election, and a certain quietude has settled over the city’s civic community. It is widely assumed that Mayor Bloomberg will be re-elected, although many New Yorkers disapprove of his actions with regard to term limits. Nonetheless, an election is a choice between people. Which one do you want to be mayor for four years, and which one is more likely to appoint competent professionals to manage city agencies and minimize political influence in the decision making process?
At a Citizens Union dinner last week, Mayor Bloomberg told a story, quoting Mayor Koch, who received an award for public service. The story was Koch telling a crowd that if they agreed with him on nine out of twelve issues, they should vote for him. If they agreed with him on twelve out of twelve, they should see a psychiatrist. Citizens Union had supported Koch for mayor three terms, and their first endorsement, in 1977, gave gravitas to his campaign. The key support Koch received in that campaign came from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which made its decision on the basis of Koch’s willingness to stand up to public employee unions, a position that his principal rival, Mario Cuomo, refused to take.
Citizens Union deserted Koch in 1989, supporting Richard Ravitch, who received just 4.7% of the vote in what had become a two-man race between Koch, the incumbent, and David Dinkins, the challenger. Naturally, Koch was not pleased, but that was twenty years ago, and he has either forgotten or forgiven Citizens Union for their quixotic choice. Ironically, the civic and business elite had for years been saying that Ravitch was the kind of man they would support for mayor, not the usual kind of politician who lived off elective office. When Ravitch finally ran, these elites generally did not support him, and since he had no allies in the political class, his candidacy was doomed. Hopefully, he has found his niche in Albany.
Mayor Bloomberg’s actions in 2008 with regard to term limits resulted in a measurable loss of popularity, and convinced many of his supporters that he was an ordinary politician, who was willing to change the rules of the game without regard to niceties of process when he believed it was in his interest. Bloomberg had maintained for many years that he had no interest in a third term as mayor, and that was true at the time he said it. He specifically said that he would object to over-riding the public referenda held on term limits in 1993 and 1996.
Michael Saul of the Daily News quoted the Mayor on November 23, 2005, as saying: “The public wants term limits, and while it may be that the City Council has a right to over-ride them, deliberately saying to the public, ‘We don’t care what you think,’ I would use the word, ‘disgraceful.’
“The cynicism that that would engender towards city government is not something that this city needs. The public wants term limits, and if that’s what they want, we should all learn to live with ‘em.”
Bloomberg promised, in his State of the City message on January 17, 2008, delivered in Flushing Meadows Corona Park (where a great new swimming pool was built due to the persistence of former Borough President Claire Shulman), to appoint a Charter Revision Commission, which could, if it wished, propose to amend or repeal the term limits law, after which the matter would go to the public for a referendum, as the two previous initiatives had. We quote:
“Today, I am pleased to announce that we will appoint a new Charter Revision Commission that will conduct a top-to-bottom review of city government over the next eighteen months. We’ll consider any proposal that will improve the life of New York and New Yorkers.”
The speech contained no reference to term limits. In any event, the eighteen-month length of the study meant that no proposal could come before the public until November 2009, and therefore could not affect the election to be held at that time, at which the eight-year term limit would apply for the third cycle. Its effective date was 2001, which was the year most existing Councilmembers won their seats, due to the forced retirement of their predecessors (in four cases a parent). When it came time for the juniors to vacate, they balked, some younger (and older) members not having any gainful trade to ply.
In any event, the Mayor did not appoint a Charter Revision Commission in either 2008 or 2009. On reflection, we believe that the extensive proposals he envisioned should be advanced in the first two years of a mayoral administration, not the last two, when politics is likely to have a greater influence than it would have earlier in the quadrennium. Term limits, however, could have been handled by a Commission relatively simply and quickly, particularly if the change consisted of deleting the number “two” and replacing it with the number “three”, which was essentially what the Council arrogated to itself.
What happened. Some circumstances changed: the fiscal crisis, the nominations of Obama and McCain, whatever. In consequence, the Mayor changed his own mind about staying on. People have a right to change their minds. If someone acted in reliance on a prior statement, they can complain, and if they were injured by the unkept promise, they can sue. For example, if someone broke a legally binding promise, you have a cause of action. If someone changes his mind on a matter of public policy, that is something s/he has a right to do. If you don’t like it, vote against him/er.
On September 29, 2009, Tom Robbins reported on a conversation he had had with Joyce Purnick, author of a new biography of Mayor Bloomberg. Robbins wrote:
“That spring , Bloomberg commissioned a poll on public attitudes about changing term limits. Purnick confirms that it showed that voters were likely to vote thumbs down on any move to change term limits in a new referendum.”
In view of the wave of anti-government sentiment directed against increased taxes and bureaucratic incursions into people’s ordinary lives, it is quite possible that the referendum would have been defeated. However, in a democracy, the people should have the last word, unless the basic rights of others are being threatened, which was not the case here.
The City Charter provides various routes by which it can be amended, by a charter commission or by a petition, both leading to a referendum. It can also be amended by the City Council, and for the great majority of sections in the charter, that is a perfectly adequate way for them to be modified. The Charter is much too long, and loaded with unnecessary detail. A real Charter Commission would reduce its length by at least four-fifths.
The Charter does, however, specifically forbid the Council to tamper with its provisions governing elections, tenure of public officials, or their comparative powers and responsibilities. Its framers did not want Councilmembers to make judgments in matters where they had an overwhelming conflict of interest. For example, the Charter specifically forbids the Council from extending its members’ term of office, from reducing the salary of public officials, or from taking other actions enhancing their own authority or perquisites.
When Ronald Lauder (or more likely his lawyers) wrote the term limits amendment that was adopted in referendum in 1993, he did not include a provision that this section be one of those already in the Charter that can only be amended by public referendum. When Peter Vallone and the Council proposed a charter revision in 1996 extending the two-term limit to three, they submitted it to public referendum, where it narrowly lost. If some deep pockets had supported it, and countered the money spent by Mr. Lauder in opposition, the plan might well have been adopted, and the current controversy could have been avoided.
What causes anxiety here is not just the change in the mayor’s attitude toward a third term. LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch all had third terms in the 20th century, and the city did not break. It is the combination of his change of heart and his vastly superior financial resources that frightens some New Yorkers. We know that under the Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo, people can spend all they like of their own money to run for public office. And there are so many loopholes in the law, letting each local union contribute to the maximum, allowing support in kind, the use of 527-c corporations which are theoretically issue-related and not involved with the candidates, but still spend millions on advertising, reinforcing the candidate’s message.
It was not Bloomberg alone but the City Council that approved the extension. It is true that he put all the pressure he could on members to vote for the plan, but it also enabled the members to run for a third term, and that was the bottom line for most of them. Their intention was not to do the mayor a favor, or express their support for him. They did it, for the most part, out of self-interest: to help themselves, to keep themselves eligible for another four years on the public payroll, with office supplies, drivers and medical expenses, and more time served in order to increase their pensions.
We did not like the process of amending the Charter. There was a hearing in a room far too small to handle the expected crowd. People were physically excluded from the hearing by guards. The whole thing was a sham as far as citizen input was concerned. The officials knew what they wanted to do, and were simply complying with the law by going through the public ritual of holding a hearing. The public was almost unanimously against the scheme, and those who testified in favor were, for the most part, recipients of mayoral largesse, either privately or through public appropriations assisting their non-profits.
That being said, voters now have the duty of choosing a mayor for the years 2010 – 2013. The basis for this decision should be the comparative merits of the candidates. Who, in your judgment, is more competent, who is more intelligent, who is more devoted to the city’s interests, who is more likely to have his decisions shaped by political considerations, whose values are closer to yours, whose staff is likely to be better educated and more principled?
The term limits controversy has also been misstated. It does not give the mayor a third term, it gives him the opportunity to run for it. You will decide whether he gets it or not. President Kennedy said “Life is unfair”, and that is true. Some people are born rich and some are born poor. The mayor’s father was an accountant in Medford, Mass., who died 45 years ago, when Michael was in college. The comptroller’s father became a Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York and, thank God, is still alive. People achieve different levels of wealth, sometimes through their own efforts, sometimes through others, or through fate.
We are grateful that in America, this third stanza
Of the English hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander
(1818-1895), does not represent our viewpoint
As to the possibility of improvement of status:
“The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
and ordered their estate."
Actually, the hymn begins beautifully,
“All things bright and beauteous,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wondrous,
The Lord God made them all.
“Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings."
There are four more quatrains,
To which you may link.
You can tell us what pains
You have, or what you think.
StarQuest #613 11.02.2009 1980wds