Term Limits Debate Could Turn On Details

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The Charter Revision Commission’s Tuesday night “issue forum” on term limits was billed as an opportunity for commission members to hear from experts about the complex pros and cons of restricting elected officials’ tenure. That it was.

But after eight public sessions, it was also the first time the commissioners discussed their own views. And—despite criticism that the panel is but a rubber stamp for a mayoral agenda—those views were far from uniform.

Tuesday’s hearing was the first of five issues forums that the commission is holding to explore policy areas where they might suggest charter changes. Hearings on land use, government structure, public integrity and voter participation are scheduled for June.

The term limits session pitted a term limits advocate, Gregory Carl Schmid of the organization U.S. Term Limits, against two academics who were, to say the least, skeptical of term limits: NYU’s Patrick Egan and Richard Niemi of the University of Rochester.

“It is disingenuous for detractors to argue that term limits have a greater effect on voter choice than other barriers, some of which are counteracted by term limits,” like the advantages incumbents have in fundraising and name recognition, the outgunned Schmid testified. To the argument that term limits prevent officials from gaining enough on-the-job expertise, Schmid said, “Government is not brain surgery” and, giving the pro-term-limits case an ideological spin, speculated that entrenched politicians are apt to “support more government” spending. Once enacted, voters have never voted down a term limits system, Schmid noted.

Referring to research on the impact of term limits, Niemi said that “term limits don’t change the kind of people who run for office,” adding that: “There hasn’t been a noticeable change in the demographics of state legislatures owing to term limits.” Term limits, Niemi testified, “have not resulted in so-called ‘citizen legislators’ being elected.” Term limits also encourage challengers to wait for open seats rather than contest against incumbents. On the other hand, Niemi noted that term limits do weaken the power of lobbyists.

“Term limits have not been a panacea,” Niemi continued. “Term limits have not been a disaster.”

Egan argued for a term limits system that “levels the playing field” between the Council and the mayor; perhaps a three-term limit for Councilmembers and two terms for the mayor. It was not clear how the public advocate, comptroller and borough presidents would fit into such a system. The prominent good government organization Citizens Union, in a break from its past opposition to term limits, also endorsed this approach of giving more time to legislators than the executive.

In 2008, Bloomberg pressured the City Council to extend term limits to permit him and other incumbents to seek an additional term in 2009. During that 2008 debate, Bloomberg neutralized opposition from billionaire Ron Lauder, who championed term limits in the 1990s, by vowing to appoint a charter revision commission to explore the restoration of term limits after the 2009 race.

Bloomberg appointed the 15-member commission in March. Some critics of the commission have accused it of being—as John Keefe, an aide testifying on behalf of Assemblyman James Brennan put it—”part of a cynical and opportunistic political deal.”But the commission revealed a diversity of opinion Tuesday night.

Brooklyn commissioner John Banks sharply questioned Schmid on whether incumbents’ advantage was as absolute as term limits advocates suggest. “Do you think Bob Bennett believes that? Do you think Arlen Specter believes that?” he asked, naming incumbent U.S. senators who lost at party conventions or primaries in the past month.

Moments later, commissioner Anthony Cassino, a Bronx lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2009 against an incumbent who benefited from the term limits extension, said the commission was “asking the wrong question” by talking about whether term limits worked well or not. The right question, Cassino said, was how to restore what city voters approved twice by referendum.

The discussion among the commission members—along with the testimony they heard—also revealed that before putting a term limits question to the voters, the commission will have to decide several questions on its own: Should a term limits proposal apply equally to the mayor, the City Council and other municipal officials? Should the limit apply to consecutive terms or to lifetime service? Should the proposal stipulate that whatever system the voters choose in referendum cannot be altered later by city law?

And should the proposal refer to a number of terms or a number of years in office? Manhattan Commissioner Hope Cohen asked whether term limits should be expressed as years, since Council terms can be four or two years depending on when redistricting occurs. So “two terms” can mean eight years, or six, or four. Councilmembers also are frequently elected at special elections that fall in odd years.

Of course, if a 10-year limit is considered ideal, four year terms are problematic.

But, Cohen noted, “10 is divisible by five.”

There was broad agreement by commissioners on this point.

Aside from issues of math and policy, there’s a key procedural question facing the panel: Should the commission put questions to the voters this fall—and if so, how many? Or should it wait? Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president called for the commission to deal solely with term limits this year and leave other questions until 2011. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio argued that the panel should address term limits in 2010 and hold off on other issues until 2012.

The 2010 election offers the prospect of higher turnout, while delaying a year affords more time for consideration. Some, including Brennan, have faulted the commission for not doing enough to publicize its work. Commission chair Matthew Goldstein, who opened Tuesday’s hearing by showing the charter’s new round of multilingual public service announcements, bristles at that criticism. “This has been the most ubiquitous outreach of any charter commission,” he said.

But there are some corners of New York it apparently has not reached. “Most people I ask about the charter revision commission think it’s a bus rental,” said commissioner Bishop Mitchell Taylor.

The commission’s schedule for the other “issues hearings” is as follows:

Voter participation: 6 p.m., Wednesday, June 2. Lehman College, Music Building, Faculty Dining Room, 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, The Bronx.

Government structure: 6 p.m., Thursday, June 10. Staten Island Technical High School, 485 Clawson Street.

Public integrity: 6 p.m., Wednesday, June 16. City College, 160 Convent Ave, Manhattan.

Land use: 6 p.m., Thursday, June 24. Flushing Branch, Queens Borough Public Library, 41-17 Main Street, Flushing.

The original version of this story inaccurately reported that deBlasio wanted other issues dealt with in 2011.