Term Limits – Yes Or No?

NOPARKING-1Term limits restricting the number of successive terms of office that may be served by elected officials has always been a controversial issue.

Brea has never had term limits and I, along with a growing number of others apparently, believe it’s time to put it to a vote.

The almost perpetual reelection of career politicians prevents the rise of new voices in government. By instituting term limits, the problems of the status quo can be solved, and more responsible, accountable candidates and Council members may arise.

Here are arguments in favor of term limits that, IMHO, make a lot of sense to me.

Term limits restore rotation in office and government by the people.

It is unfortunate that politics has become an accepted career path. It is better that participation in government be brief. Term limits will put an end to municipal politics becoming a cushy “lifetime” job, making elected service more a limited leave of absence from a productive career in the private sector.

Without term limits, the temptation to remain in office for decades keeps people seeking reelection long after they have accomplished all the legislative good of which they are capable. It does not take long for legislators to become more occupied with their relationships with each other and with lobbyists, than with their constituents. They pass their “use by” date.

Local government works best when it functions as a citizen council, in which people who pursue careers other than politics enter office for a brief time to do their community service, and then leave to reenter society as private citizens. The typical agenda of today’s career politicians is only to build their own power and influence base ahead of representing the people they were elected to serve.

Term limits make for better elections and empower new leaders and ideas.

Incumbency provides a huge electoral advantage. Sitting politicians, unlike poor Mr. Murdock, almost always win reelection. Over the past 30 years it had become virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent until the grassroots effort of Operation Clean Sweep lit up Brea ballot boxes.

People have a tendency to vote for people they recognize. Donors and special interest groups (in the past I’ve referred to them as the old guard) tend to support past winners who will likely continue to benefit their interests. Term limits actually increase voter choice by making elections more competitive and encouraging more candidates to run.

In communities where term limits have been instituted there is far higher turnover amongst elected officials, giving voters more choice in who should represent them. Ultimately, long term council members using political machines to retain power do their community and constituents a disservice. Power is best used when it changes hands over time in order to allow for dynamic new solutions.

Term limits prevent corruption and exploitation of office.

FINGERS-LWith a few exceptions like Koreagate and the Energy Coalition, Brea has been blessed with a history of well intentioned and ethical leaders. One only need to think of the City of Industry and Bell to realize the magnitude of the risk.

Sure, we’ve seen behavior that danced perilously close to the edge of the Brown Act. Local politics have always been a bit rough and tumble… and personality clashes are unfortunately more commonplace than one would prefer.

That said, when a career politician is firmly entrenched, they may seek to enrich themself at the expense of the public, to shower unearned perks upon family and allies in order to maintain and strengthen their powerful position.

Term limits serve to limit the ability of individuals to put forward self-serving legislation and to retain power indefinitely. Instead, with term limits, elected officials have only a limited time in power, which tends to shift their focus toward genuinely benefiting the public.

Term limits trigger action over apathy.

A major focus of any elected official hoping to serve another term is on the next election and on vote-getting. It is often the case that hard decisions need to be made but it is difficult for them to do so when they are fixated on being reelected. Elected officials have an incentive to put tough decisions off if they can retain power by doing so.

An example of such seemingly perpetual procrastination (climbing on my soapbox for a moment) is the interminable delays in allowing public comment on the creation of an Environmental Advisory Board.

For almost a year Council has been asked to hold a town meeting to determine how broad an interest, or lack of same, Brea residents have in local environmental issues. A simple word to the City Manager and it could have happened months ago.

When constrained by term limits, elected officials must make the most of their limited time in office, resulting in greater prioritization of difficult decisions and reform. While there will always be some of this behavior, it is curtailed by term limits, as elected officials will, in their final term at the very least, not be beholden to as many special interests as they cannot run again.

Where do you stand?

Is it time at last to finish what Operation Clean Sweep started and let term limits put an end to career politicians in Brea?


6 thoughts on “Term Limits – Yes Or No?

  1. Some rotation in office is simply good business… when the same people are doing the same things, year after year, there isn’t any auditing of the processes they’re using. When a key person leaves, even temporarily, and a new person takes over there’s a lot of questions that are asked again that maybe haven’t been asked in a long time. Also, only when the key person is gone does that person’s work truly get evaluated.

    An associate of mine used to work at a major regional bank which had a strict vacation policy: Everyone had to take at least two consecutive weeks off every year, come heck or high water. This was so the management could see who was doing what in the company and evaluate how well each department was working… they could see if there really was the necessary cross training, for example. After all, no one is really “permanent” and a good manager won’t put all of his ‘eggs in one basket’ but make sure that no one is irreplaceable.

    Also, when that person was gone was when any embezzlement became apparent. If there was any “funny accounting” it became readily apparent when someone else took over and did the accounting in their own way.

    In public office, term limits provide similar benefits to the citizens in terms of a forced “rotation” of people.

    • Edward… Excellent comment and yet another solid reason in favor of term limits. In business, no one is irreplaceable. This holds true for local government as well.

  2. I am glad this topic has come up. I have privately advocated for term limits with Brea’s elected officials for years. In the neighborhood of 90% of the cities in Orange County have had term limits for over 20 years. I was once told that Brea didn’t follow the trend in the 1990s, when most cities adopted them, because “it wasn’t a problem that needed solving”, in that, historically, Brea had very few examples of anyone serving more than two terms. They weren’t booted out of office, they simply chose not to run for a third term.

    The other argument against term limits that some have feebly offered me is that “the voters are the term limits.” What they are espousing is a pseudo virtuous appreciation for our democratic ideals. Incumbent advantage over challengers has been studied, quantified, and proven–and most state campaign laws and rules favor them.

    The first advantage is monetary. City Council members have a unique ability to raise money from developers and others doing business with the city. I have done a fair amount of fundraising for candidates. When doing so, potential donors routinely ask, “are there any incumbents in the race?” Additionally, I have heard people openly say, “we only donate to incumbents.”

    The second advantage is title. Despite polling that shows voter distrust of government and institutions in general, incumbents have wild advantages over challengers due to their title on the ballot. For example, the United States Congress has recently had an overall approval rating hovering around 10%. Yet, individual members of congress enjoy an overwhelming re-election rate. The same is true in local elections. The ballot designation, “Member, United States House of Representatives” or “City Council Member, City of Brea” has significantly more weight to the average voter than “Teacher” or “Businessman.”

    The third reason (which is actually the result of the first two) is that challengers are less apt to run against incumbents. Quite consistently we see very few people running for city council when there isn’t an “open seat” (only occurring in Brea when an incumbent chooses not to run again) versus a flood of candidates when there is. It is very daunting to overcome the power of incumbency, and can result in “no election” when no one has the wherewithal to challenge the incumbents. That is less common with city councils than it is with school or special districts, but it happened in the City of Brea City Council election as recently as 2008.

    Let’s remember that general law cities, such as Brea, have a part time city council. There is a full time city manager or administrator. The council is more akin to a non-profit board of directors and a non-profit executive director is akin to the city manager. Non-profit boards yearn for new board members and fresh ideas over an eight year period. I bring this up because the notion that any one city council member is so crucial to the health of a city as to need to serve for more than two terms doesn’t hold true in non-profit or for profit institutions with similar executive/board structures. It’s not like Brea, in particular, is devoid of smart leaders of all walks of life that can’t step in (or step up, rather) to serve on the city council.

    Lastly, and I eluded to this earlier, money is a major factor in elections. It cannot be ignored that incumbents have a far greater ability to raise money than challengers. When there are no campaign contribution limits, which Brea does NOT have while 90% of OC cities DO have, it further skews the playing field. That’s another topic, campaign contribution limits; yet, it should be considered in conjunction with term limits.

    • John… Whew, I hope folks take the time to read and digest this. I especially appreciate that you developed the connection to campaign finance. Yes, we need to address this and maybe also limit the size of political signage to clear the landscape.

      If 90% of OC cities have some sort of campaign contribution limits, what are they? Is there a predominant set of limitations commonly adopted? You’re not done yet John… hoping to see a follow-up comment. Thanks for wading in.

  3. I am compelled to do a follow up. I hate to put out “guesses” on information that is readily available. Well, when I say “readily”, I should qualify that on “available.” After reaching out to the League of California cities, the Orange County Registrar of Voters, and a number of City Clerks, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has a compiled list of cities on the topic of term limits. As such, I assigned one of my industrious “people” to the task.

    I underestimated the number of cities that do not have term limits. Among the 34 cities and the County of Orange Board of Supervisors, 10 do not have term limits. Those cities are: Aliso Viejo, Brea, La Habra, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton, and Westminster. So, that means 25 of 35 do.

    (On a separate note, many city clerks were curious to know why my person needed the information… as if this is somehow secret information).

    • John… I’ll leave your habit of guessing rather than pushing through for facts for our next coffee talk. I’ve beat you up enough for now.

      I appreciate the more accurate data and suggest you task your “industrious” person to ferret out the why behind the numbers. Being firmly committed to the benefits of term limits, I wish others would see through the empty rebuttals of career politicians and put Brea’s name on the list of cities that do have them.

      When a city clerk, or anyone else I’ve leveraged with the CPRA, asks why I need information I simply tell them they have no right to ask. It’s none of their damn business why. That said, I must add this. As I’m likely amongst the most vexatious user of the CPRA request, digging time and again into Brea’s dark past, let me go on record as being particularly pleased with how helpful and thoughtful Brea’s City Clerk, Lillian Harris-Neal has always been.

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