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Term limits – a critical analysis
By WeHo News staff, West Hollywood, California
A small group of committed residents have succeeded in placing a term limits initiative on the West Hollywood municipal ballot. That initiative is designed to end what the activists call “life-long” terms on the city council.
It reads: “Shall an ordinance be adopted providing that no person shall serve more than a total of three (3) terms as a member of the West Hollywood City Council, whether served consecutively or non-consecutively, with any portion of a term, whether elected or appointed, counting as a full term?”
The primary movers and shakers behind Measure C, Steve Martin (who won two terms to council, has lost four and is making his seventh try), Lauren Meister, a two-time failed candidate for council and Scott Schmidt, who has run for council one time and failed. Photo courtesy Yes on Measure C Facebook page.
John Heilman has sat on the council since 1984 as one of the city’s founders. Abbe Land, came on in 1986, served until 1997 and returned in 2003, making her tenure to date 21 years long. Jeffrey Prang has served for 16 years and John Duran for 12 years.
So far the proponents have had their say with little challenge. This article poses some critical questions to the logic and to the assertions made by the folks who advocate for Measure C. It is our hope that people will look closely at Measure C proponents’ assertions and the responses WeHo News has gathered before deciding about changing the way that our city government works.
The chief complaint is incumbents’ fund raising advantage; they are able to raise large campaign war chests that enable them to send out sufficient mailers to get their message to the voters who reside behind secure gates or take only a cursory interest in civic affairs.
Prior to a switch in positions two weeks ago, once challenger but now council member John D’Amico, who whipped incumbents Lindsey Horvath, Mr. Heilman and Ms. Land in 2011, told WeHo News, “I raised almost $80,000 and put in $30,000 of my own money, but the contributions came from a large coalition making small contributions that felt that someone new had to be elected,” saying that if a challenger can put together a message and a coalition, they can knock off an incumbent.
John D'Amico was against term limits before he was for them, saying in 2012 that getting elected to council shouldn't be made easy. Now, though, he sees that term limits might help to foster new, creative ideas on the council.
He said then that making it easier for people to run the government is counterintuitive. “It’s not supposed to be easy; turning over the reins of government is supposed to be hard… if people want to elect someone new to office, they should spend two-and-a-half years working on changing who is in office, not on working to change the rules for getting there.”
Still, he recently had a change of heart, saying that, “I really think this is good for the future of West Hollywood. I think this gives us a deadline for mentoring new people…”
Term limits spokesperson Lauren Meister (a twice-failed council candidate) told WeHo News when the group got started, “I think why this initiative will be successful is that even people who don't necessarily believe in term limits support this effort because they are tired of the same people getting re-elected term after term.”
Except that the electeds have always maintained that if the voters no longer approve of them, their policies or accomplishments, the voters can easily un-elect them. “We have term limits,” say Abbe Land and John Heilman, “they’re called elections.”
Still, term limits advocates suggest that voters are too lazy intellectually to decide on an incumbent’s worth and need a process that makes the decision for them. Rusty Wiggs, a challenger this year, said, “Voters have the ability to [vote newcomers in] during elections but there’s a lot of data out there that on why people will vote for the same thing. I would say we don’t have the best, the most well-educated voters when it comes time to vote,” adding that the electorate is used to “going for what you know… people get stuck in a pattern, and they vote for people they feel like they know and they keep on with the same pattern.”
Besides elections there is also attrition to prevent the seats from being “life-long.” In 2009 long-time council member Sal Guarriello died, creating an open seat on the council that the panel decided would be better filled by appointment. The anger over that move gave a challenger a chance to gain a council seat. In fact, in the 29 years since cityhood, 15 council terms have been served by 14 people (Ms. Land twice). The average tenure of all people who have served on the city council is 9.1 years long (137 years total divided by 15) - two-thirds that mandated by the proposal before the city on March 5.
Another complaint is the lack of open seats up for election, except that over the 29 years, there have been five open seats, one in 1985, 1988, 1997 and two in 1990. People have come and gone from the council with regularity, although not in the last dozen years. Which is not to say that people will not depart of their own free will regardless of term limits imposition. Behind the scenes scuttlebutt has Abbe Land leaving the council next term; she has a new job as executive director of the Trevor Project that has her travelling back and forth to New York and is particularly engaging to her.
In an interview with term limits proponents, campaign manager Mr. Schmidt (also a failed council candidate) began by contending that Common Cause, the League of Women’s voters, the California Democratic Party and publications such as the LA Times all supported their plan in 2012 under Proposition 28, which changed California legislature term limits from a maximum 14 years (six in the assemble and eight in the senate) to 12 years in one or the other house, saying, “What we’re proposing is a 12-year term limit not unlike that which was endorsed by,” the institutions just mentioned.
Abbe Land, one of the "life-long" council members about whom term limits advocates complain, may not stick around for another 12 years anyway.
When WeHo News pointed out that those same organizations opposed the idea of term limits to begin with and only endorsed Prop 28’s 12-year formula as a way to fix a broken system they would just as soon abolish, he said, “I can’t speak on their behalf,” while insisting that he could say with confidence that they agreed with his current position.
When we noted that the Los Angeles Times has stood against the idea of term limits since 1990 when Republican County Supervisor Pete Schabarum first floated the idea in order to unseat Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and only saw Proposition 28 as an improvement, Mr. Schmidt contended again that the paper agreed with the 12-year limit the WeHo term limits advocates want to implement, saying, “Measure C gets it right the first time.”
However, getting it right from the LA Times’ perspective would mean abolition, for they wrote in May, 2012 about Prop 28, "Legislative term limits are a bad idea, and The Times opposes them. But to get rid of term limits altogether, Sacramento politicians would first have to earn the trust of voters, and we don't see that happening any time in the next millennium. So reformers have offered a half-measure…”
Another of the state’s more influential papers, the Sacramento Bee wrote, "Term limits should be repealed. They haven't worked. But until voter attitudes change – and that won't happen any time soon – the electorate could help the situation by approving an incremental change contained in Proposition 28.
The non-profit California Term Limits, headed by President Jon Fleischman, a Republican political operative, opposed last year’s Proposition 28 that allowed legislators to serve for 12 years
The League of Women Voters opposed term limits before voters implemented them in 1990. They continue to oppose them today. Ann Luther, president of the Maine branch of the league, said they haven't increased competition for seats. "Term limits violate the ultimate right of voters to choose the representatives who best serve [their] needs," she says.
Even WeHo term limits supporters do not agree with the 12-year limit. The non-profit California Term Limits, headed by President Jon Fleischman, a Republican political operative, opposed last year’s Proposition 28 that allowed legislators to serve for 12 years – the same time-frame as WeHo’s proposition. That organization wants an eight-year cap.
A “little read but much feared” right-wing blogger, publisher of the FlashReport, Mr. Fleischman was recently awarded the Andrew Breitbart award by the Tea Party organization, Americans For Prosperity. Mr. Fleischman’s California Term Limits Political Action Committee (PAC) put paid signature gatherers on the ground in West Hollywood in the largest contribution to the cause made – a $5,000 ‘in kind” donation – that allowed paid signature gatherers to sign up, according to Mr. Schmidt, “one-third of the total signatures.” Without that help, in other words, the measure might not have appeared on the ballot. They needed 2344 valid signatures to place the measure on the city’s municipal ballot. Of the 4000-plus signatures submitted, 3452 were verified as being from West Hollywood residents.
Term limits proponents say that 12 years is enough time to get done what the council member wants done, but observers say that legislatures and councils do not operate like executive positions, in that individuals cannot simply “get done what they want” without the help and support of a majority of the body. Academics point out that term limits actually has a deleterious effect on that effort, as it takes time to develop knowledge, understanding, skill and relationships necessary to build winning coalitions.
A Public Policy Institute of California paper, Adapting to Term Limits: Recent Experiences and New Directions, by Bruce E. Cain and Thad Kousser, points out that although term limits remain popular with voters, they have eroded legislative capacities in unhelpful ways. Rather than representing a new breed of “citizen legislator,” new members after term limits behave a great deal like their precursors, but without institutional knowledge that would help them avoid making errors. The authors’ interviews with California legislature members and their staff revealed a widespread sense in Sacramento that something needs to be done soon to provide more stability and expertise to the Legislature’s policymaking process.
According to Mark Baldassare, CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, in an interview with the Central Valley Business Times, “Californians have steadfastly believed that legislative term limits are a good thing for California, even as policy experts disagree about their overall impact.”
Another claim term limits proponents make is that developer now run the city. According to the term limits advocates, “The influence of developers is now as pervasive over our local governing decisions as it is in the City of Los Angeles.” That argument falls apart, say anti-term limits forces, when one considers that LA has had term limits since 1992. If it did not solve the so-called " pervasive" influence of developers over the council in Los Angeles, they assert, it stands to reason that it will not do so in West Hollywood.
Even former mayor Richard Riordan, the father of LA term limits, came to rue his effort to implement term limits in 1993, saying in 2001, "I think it goes too far, and I have to take the blame for it…”
Donna Saur, deputy to former couuncil member Sal Guarriello, is staunchly opposed to term limits for WeHo.
Mr. Schmidt said that term limits would end the land use consultants’ “control” over the council. For example, both Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Meister said that Steve Afriat’s involvement with the city as a campaign consultant (he has run campaigns for four of the current incumbents and for Mr. Guarriello) and a land use consultant are a conflict of interest for the council members that would be solved by term limits.
Mr. Schmidt said, “Ethically, you can’t say that Steve Afriat doesn’t have influence over those people whose campaigns he has run, and that special interest is not known out there to the people.” When pressed on how term limits would change that, as Mr. Afriat would still run campaigns and have land use clients, Mr. Schmidt said, “He’ll have to find someone new to do his bidding.” Ms. Meister said that term limits would make long-term investment in people harder and consultants would have to deal with people who had a shorter time “to get things done.”
She asserts that long-term investments in council members now have the council working for the developers and their consultants and that would change from a long-term to a short-term relationship. The Who Owns WeHo anti-incumbent and pro-term limits Facebook page has been posting the following: “As a lobbyist the worst thing in the world you could ever have is term limits. I was vehemently against it when I was a lobbyist. Why? Because once you buy a congressional office, frankly, you don’t want to buy it again. You want to put it in the bank,” a quote attributed to infamous lobbyist/felon Jack Abramoff in 2012.
Luis Marquez, a city commissioner, is also opposed to term limits for WeHo.
Both Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Meister agreed that new council members would have the same types of relationships with consultants, both campaign and development, but contend that the relationships would not be so close over a 12 year period as they would over a 14 year period. Twelve-year council member John Duran is taking heavy fire for his relationships with developers and is the term limits proponents’ main target this election cycle.
The idea that long-term council members lack the moral and ethical strength and experiential wisdom to do what is right for the city instead of what is right for the developers is a strong thread in the term limits proponents’ tapestry. They do not say, though, how council members with no experience in wending their way through a never-before experienced minefield of campaign contributions, independent expenditures and development issues would succeed better than the old pros. It is taken for granted that “new blood” and “new ideas” would overcome the temptations that current council members have faced down time and again.
Another argument understandably missing from the term limits repertoire (and oddly missing from the anti-term limits folks') is the overall good that developer consultants with deep roots and knowledge about the city and its neighborhoods do for the city. Steve Afriat was one of those people intimately involved in the city’s beginnings and heavily involved with civic interests for 30 years and has often expressed a deep love for the city and a desire to do what is right for it, despite his clients’ sometime wishes to” maximize” their investments at the cost of the residents.
Jeffrey Prang confided in WeHo News that several land use consultants operating now in the city have the city’s best interests at heart and prevent developers from coming to Planning Commission and City Council with non-starter projects. Mr. Afriat told WeHo News four or five years ago of how a council member once walked through his office, spotted a proposed development, looked at him and said, “It’ll never get built.” Mr. Afriat conveyed that message to his client and the building, now complete, has been a win-win for everyone, city, developer and neighbors alike.
Finally, say term limits proponents, their plan would, “limit the control of campaign contributors in City government.” Yet, in Orange County, where 11 municipalities now have term limits, the cost of campaigning equals that of any other municipality’s. Those funds tend to come, according to a study by the LA Times, from developers and large businesses that do business with the city, not citizen contributors as predicted by WeHo term limits proponents.