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The trouble with term limits



The trouble with term limits is that they are a symptom of our inability, 200 years on, to effectively govern ourselves. They represent not the best government, but the best government that a limited public attention span and special interests can buy. Like representative democracy and the electoral college, term limits are based on the enduring fault line in a country that insists that all citizens are created equal, even though we clearly are not: rich vs. poor, haves vs. have-nots, nouveau immigrants vs. established immigrants, entrenched special interests vs. disenfranchised citizens, the hoi polloi against … well, “good government.”

Our local term limits, which Mayor Hardberger hopes San Antonians will vote to extend in the November elections, were enacted in 1990 following a petition drive. They are a direct descendant of the citizen revolt led by Communities Organized for Public Service that wrested control of the city council from the Good Government League, which had essentially handed off seats to pre-approved business and community leaders for two decades while diverting inner-city bond money to Northside developments. The advent of individual council districts in 1977, however, led not only to greater diversity on the council, but to another league: four councilmembers who held seats for 14-16 years, until the 1990 term-limits initiative forced them from office along with others whose incumbencies ranged from eight years to a decade.

The chronology of San Antonio representatives (available at the Public Library) outlines what was to some a problem, and others a sign of success: a long list of Kuykendall and McAllister giving way to a long list of Cisneros and Berriozabal (the one constant being Mrs. Lila Cockrell).

Bob Martin, current president of the Homeowner Taxpayer Assocation of Bexar County, is keen to remind me why we have our current meager two, two-year term limits when I call to get his reaction to Hardberger’s proposal: Helen Dutmer, he says (1977-1993). Frank Wing (also 1977-93). Henry Cisneros (council: 1975-81; mayor: 1981-89). Lila Cockrell — “a while,” says Martin (17 years, including stints on council and as mayor).

As our term limits stand now, you don’t have to put up with any elected City official for more than eight years total, and that only if they’re popular enough to move from a council position to mayor. Hardberger’s proposal would double that, allowing the citizenry to elect councilpeople and mayors to four two-year terms. If a councilman or woman made the leap to mayor, as was common before Judge Hardberger crashed the party, they could help run City government for a total of 16 years. Current elected officials would not be eligible for the new term limits.

As far as Martin is concerned, Hardberger may as well have proposed a monarchy. “By the way,” he says, “I assume this is just a first step to getting rid of term limits altogether.” For Martin and his supporters — who, whether or not they subscribe on a daily basis to HTA’s radically reductionist philsophy, did turn out in 2004 to soundly defeat Mayor Ed Garza’s term-limit extensions — term limits have resulted in better government, an argument he sees as so self-evident, he declines to offer much in the way of specifics.

That’s not necessarily due to a shortcoming on Martin’s part.

The trouble with term limits is that no one can say for sure whether they improve government or hobble it. According to the U.S. Term Limits advocacy organization, since the early 1990s, eight of 10 major American cities have imposed term limits on their city councils. They are more common in large cities than small, and the National League of Cities reported that as of 2003, only 9 percent of cities nationwide had some form of term limits in place. The most common municipal term length is four years, and it’s not unusual for citizens to impose tighter restrictions on what the pros like to call the Chief Elected Official (and what you and I like to refer to as Hizzoner). Taken as a whole, San Antonio’s term limits are more restrictive than our peers.

Philadelphia, population 1.5 million, limits its mayor to two consecutive four-year terms, but its councilmembers can serve as many four-year stints as the citizenry can stomach. In eight-million-and-growing New York City, councilmembers can serve two four-year terms. In Cincinnati, Ohio (pop. 287,000), councilmembers are limited to four two-year terms, the length proposed by Hardberger. Up the road in beautiful, still-booming Austin (pop. 636,000 and growing), the at-large council is elected to up to two three-year terms. That provision, passed in 1994, allows an incumbent to circumvent the rule if they can produce a petition showing 5 percent of the voters support a third run.

Term limits, in other words, have been in action in cities big and small, wildly successful and struggling, for more than a decade, and the NLC offers only the same pro-con generalizations we’re about to hear debated ad nauseam for the next five months:

• Pro: counters the absolute power = absolute corruption maxim

• Con: Interferes with public’s right to elect whomever they like as often as they like

• Pro: fresh ideas and more responsiveness from elected reps

• Con: As then-Mayor Nelson Wolff put it to the Dallas Morning News in 1993, “New council members come in not knowing what the hell they’re doing, how to make things happen or where to get information on the multitude of very complex issues we have to get to work on quickly.”

A National Conference of State Legislatures study that examined the 15-odd states that enacted term limits in the 1990s found that the change tended to weaken the institution of the legislature over time, resulting in less experience in leadership roles and less cooperation and comradery over all.

It’s tempting to extrapolate those findings, although they are based on state government, to our current council, which has distinguished itself by pursuing questionable moral agendas (dancing waitresses, scantily clad car washers, a nonexistent library-porn problem), while showing little understanding of the possible ramifications of adding two nuclear plants to our power supply or recruiting a bio-terror research lab to our western flank. When District 4 councilman Philip Cortez was caught cultivating a deal that violated the City’s agreement with Toyota and accepting illegally funneled campaign funds from indicted PR guy T.J. Connolly, it was hard not to yearn for recent council grads who seemed to be getting the hang of it just as the law showed them the door: Roger Flores, Chip Haass, Art Hall, Richard Perez, Patti Radle.

To put it more bluntly, and in the words of the mayor’s office: The city is a $2-billion business. Should we be throwing the CEO and board of directors out every four years?

According to Martin, that’s the way the city’s supposed to run. “These people that serve on city council are more or less policymakers; the `city` manager’s running the company ... Actually, turnover’s good.” Martin doesn’t share the concern of many term-limit-repeal advocates that a perenially green council means the city is really run by the often-enduring and unelected staff. “Well, they can be run off at any time, I guess,” he says.

Advocates for more citizen participation may not be convinced. A 2001 study by UTSA’s Metropolitan Policy and Research Institute found an almost perfect correlation between the advent of term limits in San Antonio and a decline in voter turnout — across the spectrum, but more marked in minority-dominated districts.

Martin disputes if not these findings any dire outcome. “Seems we’ve got more minorities on council, more women,” he says. “Maybe because of term limits?”

The Trouble with term limits is that they are a shortcut, an imperfect means for a lazy citizenry to exercise control over its elected officials. Although a handful of states and judges have rejected term limits, they don’t run as blatantly afoul of First-Amendment issues as campaign-finance reform efforts, and their basic math is considerably easier to enforce. But do term limits necessarily mean less corruption in government? A few recent SA news stories suggest no:

T.J. Connolly indicted for laundering campaign contributions to a councilmember

A likely downtown landmark torn down when the former Planning Commissioner signed off on the demo – reportedly at the behest of a familiar City lobbyist – and circumvented the Historic and Design Review Commission

A Parks & Rec official, as reported by the Express-News, who fudged his department’s attention to City playground audits and repairs

A police department under federal review for brutality, particularly on the city’s historically black East Side

Councilmen Enrique “Kike” Martin and John Sanders (elected in 2001) sentenced to federal prison in 2005 for a bribery scheme

As the UTSA report notes, term-limited councilmembers don’t necessarily retire back to private life, the virtuous citizen-legislators evoked in glowing terms in pro-term-limit literature. Sometimes, the setting sun in sight, they don’t even hang around for “Taps.” Following our most recent round of elections, District 9 Councilman Kevin Wolff resigned to pursue a seat on the County Commissioners court, presided over by his dad, County Judge Nelson Wolff (he’ll face term-limited former councilman Chip Haass, who served his entire term, in November). District 3 representative Roland Gutierrez left early to pursue a seat in the statehouse. In their place we have two green, and unelected, councilmembers.

Representative Gutierrez says his looming term limit wasn’t the primary motivation in his decision to run for the state legislature, but it may have influenced him. “At the end of the day, if you want to serve and do public service, you want to be able to do it as long as you can do it,” he said. “And when you have that restriction and no place else to go – I guess at some level it does factor into that decision.”

Gutierrez adds that he doesn’t believe term limits should be used in place of meaningful campaign-finance reform, which “balances things out and allows lesser-funded opponents to run against a well-heeled incumbent.” He notes that he beat incumbent councilman Ron Segovia in 2005 on a relatively small campaign budget (although he notes that Segovia was facing an uphill PR battle). “The ultimate term limit is people voting at the polls.”

The trouble with term limits is that by their nature, the debate will be politicized. And expensive. The Mayor’s office allows they plan to raise at least $750,000 for the campaign to extend term limits. If that stokes some measure of righteous indignation, recall that the ACT for San Antonio PAC spent a little over $1 million to convince just 7 percent of you to turn up at the polls for the May 10 Venue-Tax vote — and that with $415 million in visitor-funded goodies on the table for the taking. Of course, with the Obama-McCain showdown also scheduled for November 4, turnout won’t be the problem so much as disposition, and the Mayor’s office is clearly hoping that comes down to his personal popularity — which polled in the 80s ahead of the Venue-Tax vote. Of course, that was before the City Manager’s office announced that we may be facing a budget deficit over the next few years as a slowing national economy catches up with our recent penchant for expensive bond programs. And before the daily’s expose on the auditor-playground scandal.

That story didn’t stop the Ex-News from formally endorsing the Mayor’s term-limits amendment before it even gets out of the gate at tomorrow’s City Council meeting, so you can hardly blame HTA for coming out swinging. HTA founder and self-proclaimed “Father of Term Limits” C.A. Stubbs launched a cap-laden missile yesterday, lambasting Hardberger’s spending record (while failing to mention local economic growth), and promising that if he were running the HTA, he’d counter with a November ballot initiative to cap spending at some sort of post-term-limits average.

On the phone with me Monday, Martin asks to call me back. That call beeping through, he says, is “the Mayor’s push poll.” When we speak again a little while later, he names Election Support Service and says he was asked to evaluate the performance of the city manager and the police chief.

A term-limits push poll ... while we’re on the phone? That’s almost too good to be true.

And it probably is. Not our poll, says Christian Anderson at ESS.

We don’t have a poll going, says Mayoral right-hand man Christian Archer, “Nor would we do a push poll, ever.”

But it’s early in the tussle – you can expect plenty of pushing from both sides before this is over. •

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