Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Incumbent Protection Plan

Close the Insider Loophole

Which Saves 34 Officials

From Two-Term Limit

We promised near the end of yesterday's lengthy article on the history of term limits for elected officials in New York City that we would wrap it up today, so you can enjoy Thanksgiving untrammeled by thoughts of the Charter and the insiders’ effort to tweak it so they can stay in office four more years.

The Charter Revision Commission was intended when it was appointed to offer the public the opportunity to decide the matter 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 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, the 22nd Amendment, which was adopted by Congress in 1947, and ratified by the 36th state (Minnesota) in 1951. A two-term limit for governors is the law in 36 states. One state, Utah, has a three-term limit. The remaining 13 states, including New York, have no limit.

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 for their party's nomination without attacking the incumbent. More candidates are likely to enter the field if the seat is open, rather than occupied by someone seeking to hold it.

The principal reason for the petition drive, however, is not the difference between two and three terms, an issue which is certainly arguable. 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, federal, state and local 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 vis a vis government. 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.

We know that support for this position will not be unanimous. There will always be toadies, seeking to ingratiate themselves with whoever is in authority. There are a few dozen incumbents who would be adversely affected if the two-term rule were put into effect. There are individuals and organizations who have an eye on the mayoralty election in 2013, and will do or say whatever will help their chosen candidate. There are those who say that a charter so recently adopted should not be disturbed. Some will say that there are more important matters to consider, so why bother with term limits? It may be argued that the public should not presume to instruct elected officials as to how long they should serve. A few may believe that this issue deserves to be considered at length, maybe for ten years.

But at the end of the day, in most cases these arguments will all boil down to a common denominator: veiled self-interest. But there is hope. 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 this Monday 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, rather than accept its subversion by anonymous drafters and the lobbyists with whom they commune.

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.

Enjoy Thanksgiving. Count your blessings.

Live long and prosper.

Help others.


November 23, 2010
The Wall Street Journal
By Michael Howard Saul
New Effort to Limits Terms

November 23, 2010
The New York Post
By David Seifman
Civic Group Wants to Yank Three-Term Rule

November 22, 2010
The New York Observer
By David Freedlander
Effort to Tighten City's Term Limit Law Launched

November 19, 2010
The New York Examiner
By Michael A. Harris
Civic Group Wants Repeal of Term Limits Grandfather Clause

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