The decision on ending term limits should be left up to the people

Wednesday, October 15, 2008
    After coffee and cookies at Gracie Mansion last week, two of New York’s finest billionaires, both good and competent people, decided on a compromise for the elimination of term limits in order to allow the mayor to run for a third term.
    By coming to this agreement, the plan is for the New York City Council to temporarily eliminate term limits, thereby extending the terms of the current Council members and citywide and borough-wide officials for another term.
    For many New Yorkers, there is a simple reason for this plan: In the wake of a severe economic crisis that might test the leadership of any politician, Mayor Michael Bloomberg should be given the chance for one more term.
    The members of the City Council have their own reason to push this idea to fruition. This adoption of the term limit plan will help extend their political careers.
    But there is a much larger issue at stake: Should the 51 members of the Council have the authority to act in their own self-interest and so easily overturn the decision of the 200,000 people who voted in two referendums to create and extend term limits?
    It is important to note that numerous political leaders actively campaigned against term limits during the two referendums, and badly lost to the will of the people.
    In 2001, many members of the old City Council wanted to eliminate term limits before it even came into existence so that they could continue their political careers.
    However, then City Council Speaker Peter Vallone told his members that he would never support such legislation, because regardless of his own personal opinion, it was against the will of the people of the City of New York as expressed in two referendums.
    The current City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, finally broke her silence on this issue. Like the mayor, she had previously taken a strong public position against the City Council voting to eliminate term limits. Now, she has done a full reversal and will try to push this plan forward.
    Which begs a big question: If the mayor and the speaker have changed their points of view, why didn’t they unequivocally state this in the spring, summer or fall so that a referendum on this issue could be attached to the November ballot?
    Indeed, since we are talking about an issue that would not see the light of day until over a year from now, why could there not be a referendum in the winter of 2009 to allow the people of New York City to make up their own minds again?
    The major reason is that individuals who are now supporting the City Council’s attempt took their own polls in the spring and summer of 2008 and discovered that two-thirds to three-quarters of New York City voters want term limits to be continued. If they hold a referendum, they will lose.
    The issue is no longer whether you are for or are opposed to term limits. The issue on the table today is whether the decision should be made by the millions of people who live in New York, or by the 51 members of the City Council.
    The primary argument made by the plan’s proponents is that the mayor, with his track record of success, is indispensable, which of course brings to mind Charles DeGaulle’s memorable phrase that the cemeteries of France are filled with indispensable people.
    The reality is that New York did not make its remarkable comeback from the depths of the 1970s economic crisis and the 1980s crime waves and crack epidemic due to indispensable leaders. It was the people of the city, with their hard work and their willingness to stay and fight for the neighborhoods, who pulled us back from the brink.
    It is these same people who decided in very large numbers that term limits was a good idea for elected officials. If they want to eliminate term limits, they can. But let’s leave the decision to them.
    Former state Sen. Seymour Lachman is executive director of Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform.