New York Civic: Eleven Years-a-Waiting BY Henry J. Stern

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Stern_HenryJ Public to Vote in 2010 on Term Limits, But Under Current Commission Plan, They Will Not Take Effect Until 2021

August 17, 2010

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The Charter Revision Commission, appointed by Mayor Bloomberg on March 3 to recommend changes in the City Charter, has brought forth its recommendations.  In order to appear on the November ballot, the changes must be submitted to the City Clerk sixty days prior to the election. This year that date is September 3.

The principal purpose of the Commission was to give the people a chance to vote on term limits for elected officials. In a referendum in 1993, the voters approved a charter amendment limiting city officials to two consecutive elective terms, usually eight years. In 1996, the voters affirmed their earlier decision, rejecting an alternative limit of three terms.

The Charter change was made effective in 2001, at which time a large majority of Council seats turned over. New members were elected, who under the law could serve for no more than two terms. If not for the Charter changes approved by the voters, most of the old councilmembers would have been re-elected and the new members would not have run. In fact, eight of the newly elected were relatives of their predecessors, dynastic succession not being prohibited by the Charter.

In 2008, the elected officials who would have been ineligible to seek re-election the next year decided that their services would be needed for many years to come. At the urging of the mayor, who said his leadership was required because of the impending fiscal crisis, the Council voted, 29 – 22, to override the two referenda and extend their own eligibility for an additional four years. This decision was upheld in court.

Public dissatisfaction with this maneuver was demonstrated by the unprecedented defeat of five councilmembers in districts where re-election had usually been automatic. The narrow margin of Mayor Bloomberg's victory over his opponent was attributed more to voter dissatisfaction over the manipulation of the Charter than to complaints about his administration of the city, which was widely regarded as satisfactory.

During the campaign, Mayor Bloomberg promised to appoint a Charter Commission to review the city's governmental structure and, specifically, to address the issue of term limits. He had previously promised to appoint such a commission in 2008, but in the press of business found it impossible to adhere to that commitment. This time, with the third term under his belt, he did appoint a commission, which is making recommendations to be placed on the ballot in 2010.

The Commission consisted of 15 members, led by the widely respected chancellor of the City University, Dr. Matthew Goldstein. Its most important recommendation had been predicted, to give the voters another chance to vote on term limits. Another was to forbid the Council to vote to overrule the voters to extend their own eligibility. This was the public locking of the barn door, after the third term horse was stolen in 2008. That was the proper and appropriate thing for the Commission to do. It should have been provided for in the initial referenda, but Ronald Lauder's lawyers overlooked it, perhaps because they believed that no one would have the nerve to throttle a decision made in a democratic process involving a million voters. If they believed that, they were mistaken.

Having made the inevitable decision to submit the issue once again to the public (that, after all, was why they were appointed in the first place), the Commission then proceeded to commit the inexplicable blunder of not making its decision effective until 2021, which is eleven years into the future.

Councilmembers elected in 2005 and 2009 would be eligible to seek a third term, and the two term limit would not become effective until the members to be elected in 2013 took their seats.

If the people are to regain the right to limit Councilmembers' terms, their decision should be put into effect at the next Council election, which may be in 2011 or 2013, depending on when census data is reported. The eight year delay appears to be an attempt to subvert the Commission's own decision, which its members may not have been too happy to make, some of them being creatures of the comfortable establishment, quite content to see members linger in office until they are thoroughly superannuated.

Some of this is hard to understand. If a matter is submitted to referendum, as this issue will be in 2010, the decision of the people, whatever it may be, should go into effect as soon as possible. If the matter involves eligibility for election, it should go into effect for the election immediately following the referendum. The eight-year delay in ineligibility, not allowing it to go into effect until 2021, makes no sense. First, it is an invitation to change the charter again within the next ten years, to repeal or to further extend term limits. Second, it unjustly allows incumbents to seek third terms when the people have again rejected such privilege for a handful of office holders. Third, at the very least, the public should have the opportunity to vote on whether the charter change goes into effect at the next election or not until 2021.

The right to decide this issue was snatched from the public by the 2008 self-perpetuating dance of the incumbents. The proposed charter change restores that right to the people. It is a normal expectation for charter changes to go into effect as soon as practicable. Whether the effective date of this restoration of voting rights should be delayed by ten years is a separate issue which the public has a right to decide.

The Charter Commission has generally done good work, and its members have served long hours without pay. We do not suggest that they are corrupt or derelict in their responsibilities. But the ten year delay in implementing the public's decision on term limits is inexplicable. It suggests an imperialist power agreeing to grant independence to a colony in ten years, by which time the natives may be expected to learn how to govern themselves.

Such a time-consuming process is not only unnecessary but insulting to the public. If we are capable of deciding how many terms our elected officials can serve, we are capable of deciding, if we choose to, that our wishes shall go into effect at the next election for Councilmembers, not a decade into the future.

There is still time for the commission to correct what appears to be a manifest error. We hope they do so, in order for the voters to make their decision effective, whatever it may be. It will require leadership by the Chair and farsighted commissioners to modify the mandatory ten-year delay. Otherwise, the cause of the rule of law and returning the decision on term limits to the voters will have been subverted. That would lead to a loss of confidence in the commission and the important issues it is expected to consider in 2011.

Do the right thing.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.

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