Hasta La Vista, Council Members, Or, The Case For Term Limits

06.17.2005 | Henry Stern | Urban Affairs

Twelve years after term limits for city elected officials were adopted by referendum, the City Council is making its third attempt to overturn the decision of the voters. The background and status of the issue is discussed in detail by Sam Roberts in an article in Saturday’s Times. The column is not likely to be widely read, since on weekends in June, many New Yorkers are out of town, at parks and beaches, or occupying themselves in other ways than reading political analyses. In fact, prominent people have announced their divorces on Friday evening so as to attract minimal public attention.
 
Mr. Roberts has written an authoritative and sophisticatead piece which describes the history of the controversy and focuses on the most recent efforts of City Councilmembers to prolong their tenure. The term limits, approved in 1993, resulted in a nearly complete change of personnel after the 2001 election. Without making a definitive judgment on the new Council, (the members range in industry, intellect and integrity from Yassky to Jennings) it is undisputed that a lot of dead wood was removed four years ago—people who won re-election term after term in districts gerrymandered for their convenience.
 
The latest effort at resuscitation is a brazen attempt by the incumbents (the usual suspects) to extend the eight year limit on their terms to twelve years, or possibly to abolish term limits altogether, notwithstanding two referenda that have been held on the matter, in which the people decisively supported the two-term limit for all city elected officials  (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents and 51 councilmembers). The rule was simple: eight and out.
 
The Council’s first foray into the area of term limits came in 1996, when under the leadership of Speaker Peter F. Vallone, it sent the issue back to the public by placing it on the ballot for a second referendum. When the votes were counted, repeal had lost, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent.  Term limits stayed in effect.  It is to the credit of Speaker Vallone, however, that he tried to reverse the public’s decision by giving them another opportunity to vote on the matter. Fair and reasonable. 
 
The next attempt was in 2001, the year that a majority of the Council would be ineligible to run for re-election. A few had decamped the previous year to the State Legislature, which has no such term limit rules. In fact, the longest serving state senator in the United States sits in Albany, our sleepy capital. He is John J. Marchi of Staten Island, who first took office in 1957.
 
Senator Marchi’s greatest political moment came in June 1969, when he surprisingly defeated the incumbent mayor, John V. Lindsay, in the Republican primary. Lindsay went on to win re-election on the Liberal Party line in November, the first and only time the Liberals elected a mayor on their own. Mr. Marchi, the Republican candidate, came in third in the general election, with the Democratic nominee, City Comptroller Mario A. Procaccino, running second.
 
Many political analysts believe that, if Marchi had not defeated Lindsay in the primary, the race would have been one and one between Lindsay and Procaccino, and the comptroller would have won. Because of the upset of the incumbent in the primary,  Lindsay was opposed  in November by two (not one) Italian American and relatively conservative (by New York standards) candidates, Lindsay was re-elected with a plurality, but not a majority, of the vote. 
 
Not wishing to be involved in another Republican primary, Lindsay and a number of his aides switched to the Democratic Party in August 1971. He then sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, a candidacy that was widely regarded as premature at best.
 
In the 2001 attempt to extend their political lives, the incumbents garnered substantial support in the Council.  The bill was defeated, however, in the Committee on Government Operations, in a 5-4 vote, with the deciding vote cast by the lone Republican on the committee, Stephen J. Fiala of Staten Island.

Mr. Fiala said that at the time he was personally opposed to term limits, but he felt that in a democracy, a decision made by the people should only be changed by the people, and not by a small group of those who would be adversely affected by the decision. Fiala is now the Richmond County Clerk, and a civic and environmental activist on the island.
 
In 2003, the Council pulled off a successful ploy which tweaked term limits slightly. Speaker Gifford Miller had been elected in January 2002 for a two year term.  There was a midterm Council election to be held in 2003 (and every twenty years thereafter), required because of the redistricting that followed the decennial census of 2000. Miller and the Council passed a bill defining a term as four years, not two, so that he could serve four years as speaker. The bill also had a trick provision preventing people who had left the Council in 2001 from running in 2003, sparing incumbents from challenge by their immediate predecessors.
 
The Miller bill was challenged in court in Brooklyn. The law was invalidated in the Supreme Court but eventually upheld in the Appellate Division, 3-1. The feeling was that the changes were minor, and consistent with the eight year term, although some members who held fractional terms (like Mr. Miller) could serve longer. There is language in the opinion that the Council had the right to change the law, but a more substantial modification is likely to be disputed more vigorously.
 
That brings us to the present, where Councilmember Gale Brewer of Manhattan plans to introduce a bill, to be considered after the 2005 election, for the Council to extend the two-term limit to three terms. It is possible that others may seek to abolish the restriction altogether, or shrewdly wait until 2009 to change the three term limit to four terms. 

Why should anyone want to leave the Council, with its six figure salary, including lulus, the lack of any restriction on outside work or income, the ample staffs, the mailing privileges at public expense for self-serving illustrated brochures, and all the privileges and emoluments which come with good pay and light work, which basically consists of intoning ‘Aye’ upon hearing your surname mentioned on a roll call?
 
The fight is just beginning, and we predict that newspapers and good government groups still have the vitality to oppose this latest attempt to overrule the people of the City of New York, who have twice voted that eight years is enough for these worthies, and at the end of that time they should be able to either find themselves another public office, or get a job elsewhere if they can.
 
But the Council insiders are utterly without shame, or regard for the decisions of the electorate. They can be expected, on the basis of past performance, to do everything they can to preserve their privileged positions of pomp and power.
 
Today, the cat is out of the bag. We know months in advance what the rascals are up to. And public discussion of the proposed coup can take place during the campaign, rather than after the election, when those elected will have four years in office before the voters can hold them accountable.
 
The City Council may not mean much in the larger picture. It was in 1965 that I first said that “the Council is less than a rubber stamp, because a rubber stamp at least leaves an impression.” It has gained considerable power since then, in great part because of the persistent efforts of former Speaker Vallone. The Council has not significantly improved, however, in terms of the quality or independence of its members, so the negative evaluation which could have been applied to the former Board of Aldermen remains relevant in the 21st century.
 
One cannot leave the subject of the Board of Aldermen, predecessor to the City Council, without telling the story of the most abrupt conclusion ever to a meeting of the Board. Someone opened the rear door of the Council chamber and shouted, “Alderman, your saloon’s on fire”, and the room emptied immediately.
 
Today’s City Council is much more reluctant than the old Board to clear out of their ornate chamber at City Hall, even when the law tells them it is time to go. Their final public service should be to depart, not in haste, but on time.
 
Hasta la vista, Councilmembers.



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