Sunday, October 05, 2008


Changing term limits in NYC?

New York City has two-term limits for the offices of Mayor, City Council member, and other elected municipal positions. Mayor Bloomberg decided that he wants to change that, and run for a third term.

Of course, it is controversial. The New York Times thinks it’s a fine idea. The City Council had mixed feelings when they heard about it — some of them were planning to run for offices that might not be up for grabs if things change, and, anyway, they were being asked to overturn the rule of the voters. History tells us that third terms can be dicey — even a successful mayor can be like three-day-old fish in a third term. And even a strong proponent of term limits thinks that right now, as a one-time thing, it’d be OK: we have a crisis that Mayor Bloomberg will be the best choice to get us out of.

It looks like the City Council will do it, early this week. I have some concern with that, which might surprise some, because I’m very much against term limits.

I think term limits are terribly undemocratic. They’re an attack on a problem from the wrong direction. If the issue is that bad leaders are staying in office too long, the answer is to get better choices in front of the voters. If the issue is that people are cheating or otherwise abusing power to stay in office, that has to be fixed. If the issue is that incumbents have an unfair advantage, there are other ways to address that. But arbitrarily telling voters who they mayn’t vote for... isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

Term limits cause elected officials to bounce from office to office, always looking for the next thing to run for. They create inefficiencies by forcing people with experience to leave, bringing in new, inexperienced replacements. And at their worst, they can toss out a good performer and make us choose from among a sad batch vying for the job

On the other hand, this was passed by the voters, twice. It’s fascinating to me that people are willing to restrict their own options in what I see as a misguided means to prevent “Councilmember for Life” situations. Nevertheless, we can’t just ignore the voters.

Now, the City Council does have the authority to change things, and I think they should... but I don’t think their change should be applicable to anyone who’s currently holding office. That is, anyone who was elected with a two-term limit — including the mayor — should maintain a two-term limit. Anyone elected after the change will be covered by the change. That prevents self-serving abuse, where the Councilmembers lift their own term limits, or are pressured by the mayor to lift his.

That wouldn’t solve the problem at hand, of course, and if we really think that Michael Bloomberg is the answer to the city’s financial problems then maybe the right way to handle it is to have the new mayor hire him as a consultant.

So there it is: the New York City Council should not change the term limit from two to three. It should remove the limits altogether, but not for the current “ins”.

1 comment:

W.M. Irwin said...

I wonder how history would have unfolded had Clinton been able to run for a third term in 2000.

Here in Gainesville, the city commission has term limits. "Career" politicians simply go over and run for Alachua County Commission seats after they've reached their city commission term limits. It reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode where the protagonist keeps dreaming he is on death row, about to be executed. The only difference in each dream is that the characters keep switching their roles!