Why You Should Not Be Undecided About Term Limits

By Morgan Pehme (a.k.a. The Brooklyn Optimist)

Before I lay out exactly why you should be against the City Council's move to extend term limits without your say, let me start by putting two common misconceptions to rest.

The movement against extending term limits is not about whether Mayor Bloomberg has done a good job in office. For the record, I think that he has. And if the City Council puts extending term limits on the ballot, as I believe they must, then you will have still have the opportunity to re-elect our Mayor if the measure passes.

So many New Yorkers are confused that this is an anti-Bloomberg initiative because that is how the Mayor has shrewdly framed the issue. Since the majority of New Yorkers feel pretty positively about him, miscasting the debate as “Bloomberg vs. No Bloomberg” twists the odds in favor of his agenda.

Second, this is not a debate about whether term limits are good. Personally, in an ideal world, I would be opposed to term limits, because the people should have the right to vote for whomever they want, for as long as they want. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The real question about extending term limits is whether our City Council should be allowed to run roughshod over the will of the people, just so they can keep their jobs for another four years. When you understand that this is what's at stake, then there is no good reason to support or stay undecided on the Council's backroom deal to extend term limits.

Twice in the past 15 years, the people of New York City have voted for term limits. The 1993 ballot initiative that resulted in term limits was introduced by Ron Lauder as a response to a vast corruption scandal that rocked then-Mayor Koch's Administration. Lauder's thinking was that the power of incumbency was so imbalanced in favor of our elected officials that they felt secure in abusing their positions for personal gain, because they knew it was virtually impossible for them to get voted out of office. In other words, the reason for term limits was to keep our politicians honest.

The last Council election in 2004 once again demonstrated the power of iron-clad incumbency. In the entire city, the only Council Member voted out of office was Allan Jennings of Queens, a guy whose private and public behavior was so bizarre (and allegedly criminal) it verged on insanity. Even then, it took a former Councilman unseated only because of the City's term limit laws - Thomas White Jr. - to beat him.

The current class of City Council Members has done little to convince the public that the Council has reformed its ways since Lauder's 1993 initiative. On the contrary, under Speaker Christine Quinn's leadership, the entire Council has come under investigation from the U.S. Attorney's Office for one of the worst scandals in recent City history. Uncovered earlier this year, the "slush fund scandal" exposed the Council's longstanding practice of funneling millions of dollars of taxpayer money into phantom organizations, so that the funds could later be doled out by the Speaker for political favors. Because the Council's previous bylaws allowed its Members to hide who made the specific requests to pour money into these dummy organizations, we don't know just how many Council Members should be directly implicated in these illegal transactions. Only the Federal investigation currently underway by U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia can tell us. But what we do know about is some of the public fall out, like the fact that two top aides to Brooklyn Councilman Kendall Stewart were indicted for their role in the scandal and that Speaker Quinn has hired a criminal attorney at taxpayer expense to defend herself. The entire Council as a body has also retained Quinn's lawyer.

The reason I bring up the Council is that it is often forgotten that the price for keeping around our popular mayor is another four years for the majority of our Council Members. Many of us like Bloomberg, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to go to bat for extending term limits just to keep our Council Members in office.

Anyone, that is, except for our Council Members.

Neither myself, nor almost anyone else in opposition to the Council's move to extend term limits is arguing that a third-term for our elected officials would necessarily be bad. What we are advocating for is that the people of New York decide this issue.

It is a fundamental conflict of interest for our Council Members to vote to rewrite our City's laws when they are the sole beneficiaries of that change. And, for those of you who question my characterization of our Council Member's motives, keep in mind that the Mayor has made it abundantly clear that he intends the third-term to be applicable only to the current crop of term-limited elected officials. That's the main reason why the few Council Members who aren't term-limited in 2009 are so incensed. They stand to gain nothing for playing ball with the Mayor and Speaker Quinn.

The Council is moving quickly to vote on extending term limits, so that more New Yorkers don't have a chance to understand what's really going on. They've reduced the entire public discourse on this event to a slim two-week window and arranged for only a single, solitary public hearing on the issue – and only in Manhattan. By comparison, when the City was considering banning horse-drawn carriages, there were nine public hearings on the bill. Imagine how many there would be if we wanted to build a new highway.

In any case, if the Council were willing to put term limits on the ballot for us to decide, this whole debate would be over in an instant.

But the Mayor and Speaker Quinn know that their scheme doesn't stand a chance if the voters get their say. They argue that a ballot referendum would be undemocratic because so few voters participate in special elections that the outcome of a vote just on term limits wouldn't really be representative of public opinion.

This is simply not true.

The real reason is that they don't trust the voters to do their bidding. They know that if we vote their initiative will fail and then they'd be out of a job. Twice in the last 15, New Yorkers have voted in favor of term limits. Recent polls show there is no reason to suspect that the third time would be any different. In fact, what Bloomberg and Quinn secretly understand is that generally only the most passionate and informed voters tend to show up for special elections – precisely the voters they won't be able to dupe with their self-serving propaganda.

A lot of fear has been used to manipulate us. Above all, we've been threatened that only New York City's richest man has the business skills to pull us back from the brink of economic collapse. Maybe. That's why I'm for the Council letting the people decide if we want to keep Bloomberg in office.

But until we get the chance to vote, I ask you to put your personal feelings aside about Mayor Bloomberg. Were you among the legions of New Yorkers outraged when Mayor Giuliani announced after 9/11 he wanted to stick around for another term, because only he could keep us safe? Are you a New Yorker who would have rioted in the streets and stormed the White House if President Bush had insisted on a third term? When we change the rules to benefit a good man, we also benefit those with the worst of intentions.

Share with your friends the real reasons to oppose the Council's attempt to deny us our voice. And make sure to call your Council Members to let them know they work for you, not for themselves.