Friday, October 24, 2008

Term Limits: Great Taste or Less Filling?

Term Length -not Limits- and the City Council has now become a question that asks voters their opinion, which seems a healthy practice.
It's taken a while to even get the limited measure of equalizing terms of office available for the public to weigh in upon, so resistant has been the Council in protecting some pretty ossified elements of the City Charter.

Fortunately, that ice has already been broken and a few measures actually adopted that ought to help our local governance going into the future.
Now, people get to decide whether voting for 1 of 7 Council seats makes sense every 2 years,which is a very short time for any new Council member to become accustomed to their elected duties.

Notice, I mention any NEW member, because new members will be elected from time to time, whether an incumbent remains in office for a long period of time or not.
Naturally, a long-seated incumbent ought to have learned the job pretty well or they would not have been re-elected.

But, the question is not so much a member's re-election as it is their enthusiasm and effectiveness in the office they hold.
As someone who served for 9 years on the Council, I found my enthusiasm was directly proportional to my effectiveness, and both distinctly began to wane after 4 or 5 years.

Others undoubtedly have greater tolerance for the frustration, boredom and demands that an elected legislative office brings than I did, notwithstanding the accomplishments and sense of understanding that comes with such service.
I stayed too long, and I knew it. Then I couldn't wait to get out.
That partly reflects the way I saw the job, as challenging, of broad scope and unrelenting.
I certainly did not view my term in office as any sort of ego trip, or a chance to gratify my 'base', or an arbitrary exercise in pandering to populism.
But, all of that is just me, and this piece isn't about that subject at all, except as one perspective.

Bottom line is I think it healthy to have some turnover, not only on the Council, but in each seat.
That way, more folks get a chance to really learn what it means to serve others, to understand the rules under which decisions must be made, and to more fully appreciate problems and issues from more than one perspective.
In a diverse population such as ours, it is important for as many responsible people as possible to have the chance to serve, not only in volunteer positions, but in elected ones.

As a corollary, it is sensible for equal offices to have equal terms.
That not only insures sufficient time to learn the job, but also removes a formidable political barrier that favors incumbents.
In Whatcom County, there are reported to be about 232 elected offices, and only 1 -that of the City Council At-Large Seat- has a term of 2 years.
That ought to be a signal that something could be easily corrected.

Years ago, Miller Lite Beer had a commercial that used 3 Major League Baseball Players as actors in a trumped-up 'argument' about whether the beer should be drunk because it 'tasted better', or 'was less filling'.
Anyone besides me remember that?
Anyway, in the commercial, the argument got really heated, before a third famous player was introduced to be the arbitrator.
Of course, that 3rd player turned out to be none other than Billy Martin, a known hot-head during his career.
When asked to decide between the 2 'arguments', Billy simply said, he felt strongly both ways!
And so it is with Term Limits.
There is no set answer, but the positions involved do vary, and the circumstances have to be evaluated to fit.

Why would Term Limits be considered at all?
For any position?
Might it have something to do with Americans not wanting to set up their elected officials as their entrenched, de facto, rulers?
How about having a failsafe plan to weed out the ne'er-do-wells from time to time?
What about introducing fresh blood, ideas, energy and approaches?
I can think of other reasons, too, but these may be the main ones.

Why would mandatory Term Limits be a bad idea?
Why would you want to get rid of some elected official who is still doing a very good job?
What about the impact of excessive turnover in a time of real crisis?
Would that be wise?

Lately, this question has come up from several angles, all of which bear on the question of when, where and how Term Limits should be properly employed.
Here are some situations to consider:

US Supreme Court
Our Founding Fathers saw lifetime appointments for the Justices as a way to separate the powers between the 3 branches of government.
In particular, they wanted to avoid excessive power of the Executive that could come from either short term limits, or appointed Justices.
Did they succeed?
Partly, I think.
The Executive still gets to appoint Justices, but only after relatively long periods of time, which can produce imbalances anyway.
Then, there's the question of the demands of any responsible office that is for lifetime duration.
Do Justices stay in office longer than is best for either them or our Country?
And, if they do, what can be done to remove them?

SEC Chairman:
Alan Greenspan served in this office for 20 years, from 1987 until 2006, under successive appointments by at least 3 different Presidents.
Was this tenure justified, based upon the severe financial crisis that has befallen us because of unchecked -and unregulated- greed?
Mr Greenspan himself admitted that his market theory was 'flawed', and that earlier detection of it may have prevented the current melt-down that has taken on global proportions.
What is wrong with this picture?
Can't we set up an oversight using multiple views and experts, so that at least we have an early warning system in place?

Mayor of New York:
Michael Bloomberg, the current Mayor, is up against a 2-Term Limit, but has requested the NY City Council's approval to run for a third term because of his expertise in dealing with the current severe financial crisis.
That sounds very reasonable to me, as it also has to 29 of the 51 members of the NY City Council.
So, it will probably happen, despite the carping of some political rivals.

From the NY Times:
"Many New Yorkers believe that if anyone changes the law, it should be the voters, not the Council. Many also see the proposal as a cynical effort by the mayor — who in the past has supported the law — and some Council members to change the rules in midcourse and perpetuate their own political careers.
We understand these objections, but there is a greater issue. This page has always strongly opposed term limits, and we continue to oppose them. We believe they infringe a basic American right: the voters’ right to choose who they want in office. If we had our way, the Council would be voting to abolish term limits altogether."

It seems Term Limits haven't always been the case in NYC, but sometimes the times require changes.
I don't remember ever seeing something cut in stone about Term Limits, except the voters -or their representatives- get to decide the issue from time to time.
And, if the voters' representatives get it wrong, they themselves can be punished at the ballot box.

In time, Bellingham may also want to consider Term Limits, but right now the issue is a much smaller one - that of Term Equality.
I strongly support Term Equality, and can think of no good reason why it should not be applied to every elected office of equal weight and responsibility.

Not far removed in fairness is the issue of so-called 'District Voting', which is bad idea for many of the same reasons.
The system Whatcom County adopted a few years ago was misguided, and ought to be returned to the former system.
The former system is the same one now used in the City of Bellingham;
Each Council Member who represents a specific Ward, is required to live in that Ward -the exception being the At-Large Member.
Primary Elections -by Ward only, as necessary- determine the top 2 candidates from each Ward.
General Elections are for the entire City population of voters to decide.
That is certainly the fairest possible method to guarantee candidates are elected who see the job as representing the entire City.
Ward-only, or District-only voting only serves the interests of those who see it easier to attain and maintain control over a office with 'feudal' boundaries.
In England, this practice degenerated into so-called 'Rotten Boroughs'. You can Google it for details.
For most of the issues we face, that is a mistake that is avoidable, but only if voters recognize it as such.

Subscribing to the following idea might solve both of the afore-mentioned problems; think of all elected Council Offices as 'District Apportioned At-Large' positions.
That would require each candidate to not only reside in the District they represent, but to also obtain a majority of the County-wide vote.
Just seems fairer and simpler to me.
Last I checked those are pretty good goals to shoot for.