THE BLOG

Term Limits Deferred

11/24/2010 03:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An effort to restore the two-term limit for elected city officials this year was launched yesterday at a news conference on the steps of City Hall.

Like some spacecraft, the mission began with seven pioneers: Anthony Perez Cassino, a member of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission; former State Senator Seymour P. Lachman, Director of the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform; former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro; former New York State Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey; Michael Meyers, President and Executive Director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Henry J. Stern, Founder of New York Civic; and Councilman Eric Ulrich of Queens.

We hope the cause will be joined by tens of thousands of New Yorkers. It is intended to bring about a referendum in November 2011, on whether the two-term limit, adopted by a 74-26 margin three weeks ago, will go into effect at the next Council election, in 2013, or will be delayed eight years. If it is, the people who voted to extend their own eligibility will enjoy the fruits of their self-interested tampering with the Charter.

We believe that two terms means just that, eight years, and that the will of the public should take effect as soon as practical, at the next election. The incumbents want it postponed eight years, so they will have time to fiddle with the rule and seek its reversal. A last-minute machination on the Charter Revision Commission added the eight-year delay. Our purpose is to secure a referendum, so that the people will have a chance to vote on whether or not they want the restoration of the two-term limit to take effect promptly.

Although the principles involved are simple -- fair play and rule by the people -- the machinations of the insiders who consider their own incumbency the ultimate public good have given the struggle a lengthy and convoluted history. For those patient souls who are interested in the background, here it is.

The tale begins in 1993, seventeen years ago, when Ronald Lauder, who had been a mayoral candidate in 1989, funded a petition drive for a referendum on whether elected city officials (the three who run city wide, the five borough presidents and the 51 councilmembers) should be subject to a two-term limit. Lauder's proposal was approved by the voters, 59% to 41%. It was to become effective in 2001.

In 1996, the City Council, concerned with the approaching deadline, placed a referendum on the ballot proposing that the limit of two terms be extended to three terms. Their proposal was defeated at the polls, by a 54-46 margin. Although the council could have attempted to change the Charter by legislation, Speaker Peter F. Vallone said at the time that since the voters had approved term limits in the earlier referendum, it should be up to them to decide on its modification.

In 2001, the two-term limit took effect. Thirty-seven of the 51 councilmembers were newly elected. Many were chosen only because the two-term limit had removed their predecessors and given them an open seat to run for. In five cases, (Clarke, Dilan, Foster, Rivera and Vallone) the new member was a son or daughter of the old member. That is the prerogative of the voters. The new members were elected under a City Charter provision under which they could serve just two terms, expiring at the end of 2009.

The Charter provides that it can be amended by vote of the people in referendum. It can also be amended by local law, adopted by the council and signed by the mayor. Certain provisions of the charter cannot be amended by the Council, e.g., they cannot lengthen their own terms, reduce the mayor's salary, or arrogate his authority to themselves.

In general, these prohibitions apply to the relationships between the council and the mayor, and the council and the voters with regard to elections. In those sensitive areas, only the people can change the structure of government and the rules and procedures governing the selection of public officials.

The City Charter is over 300 pages long. It is far too specific, as is the State constitution which is even longer. Many provisions are set out in excessive detail. They consist of requirements which should really be local laws. But its more important provisions, and those in the state's Municipal Home Rule Law, set forth the ground rules under which the city is governed.

The mayor has the power to appoint a Charter Revision Commission, which has the authority to submit proposals to the public in a referendum. These changes can be packaged into a single vote, or broken down into many issues, at the Commission's discretion. Over the years, important changes in city government, e.g. the abolition of the Board of Estimate, were proposed by a Charter Commission, in that case to comply with Federal court decisions.

The mayor and the city council can also propose referenda to amend the charter. Those proposals must be submitted to the City Clerk at least sixty days before the election at which the proposals will be voted upon. But the mayor and council have the power to change the Charter themselves, without a referendum, as long as the change does not affect their powers or other immutable provisions.

In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg promised publicly that he would appoint a Charter Revision Commission in the next year to conduct a broad review of city operations and structure. Whatever proposals they made were supposed to go to referendum in 2008, in time to apply to the 2009 elections, at which time term limits could be reconsidered, extended, or modified, if that were the wish of the voters.

Month after month, the mayor did not appoint a Charter Revision Commission. On September 5, the sixty-day deadline on amendments began, so no proposal could be put on the ballot by petition or by a commission.

However, on September 19, a councilmember, by request of Mayor Bloomberg, introduced legislation into the City Council which would amend the charter to allow elected city officials to serve three terms instead of two. Everyone whose tenure was supposed to end in 2009 would then be able to serve through 2013. 

The Mayor argued that the fiscal crisis that New York City was facing prompted his change of heart, and that his business experience uniquely qualified him to lead in what admittedly were difficult times. They still are.

The mayor and his supporters also pointed out that the Charter change did not assure his election, but only gave him the opportunity to run, with the voters making the final decision. His opponents claimed that, in view of the mayor's financial resources, the contest would be unfair. 

The mayor contended that, in a predominantly Democratic city, which New York is, his candidacy as a Republican and Independent was always a difficult race. The unexpectedly close outcome of the 2009 election showed that the mayor's wealth alone did not assure his victory. The 2010 defeat of Meg Whitman in California demonstrates that point.

There is an old political tale, some but not all true, which has many versions as to its provenance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking re-election, and a local Brooklyn politician was at the bottom of the ticket, running for a minor office. He complained to the boss of his ward, Hymie Shorenstein, that all the election posters carried FDR's name and picture, and none had his, even though he too was on the ballot. Shorenstein told him that when the Staten Island Ferry pulled into its slip, much of the garbage in the harbor was pulled in along with it. President Roosevelt, Hymie said, was the ferryboat.

In this case, however, the Council was more important than garbage. Its consent was needed to adopt the Charter change, so the bill had to include its 51 members and other elected city officials. Even then, it passed by only 29-22, an unusual show of restlessness in a normally accommodating municipal legislature. Mayor Bloomberg and his staff used a great deal of political muscle as well as charm and logic to round up votes. Some commitments may have been made.

One yes vote, David Yassky, now chairs the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, a position to which he was appointed after he was defeated for Comptroller. Yassky, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, was considered one of the brightest members of the Council. Hopefully, he will serve well at the TLC.

A Quinnipiac poll published in the Post on October 21 showed 89 per cent believing that the term limits should be decided by referendum, with only 7 per cent thinking otherwise. This was an unprecedented majority of public opinion.

The mandatory public hearings were held on the Charter amendment, with a huge majority of speakers opposing the change. The speakers who supported it argued that the mayor was unique, his services were valuable, he was needed in the time of crisis, and this was the only way to keep him in office. The Council passed the bill on October 28, and the mayor signed it on Monday, November 3, 2008. At the time, the mayor said that the issue of term limits would be taken up by a new Charter commission.

The 2010 commission, headed by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, was appointed on March 3 of this year by Mayor Bloomberg. It consisted of 15 members, and embarked on an ambitious schedule of public hearings, which were televised on the city station. It recommended a number of minor improvements in city governance, and skipped other questions because of lack of time. The most controversial issue, term limits, proved difficult to resolve.

In the end, the Commission on August 11 adopted Charter amendments, including sending to the public a proposal to change the term limit for city elected officials from the three that had been added to the Charter by the mayor and council in 2008, under which the 2009 election had been conducted, to two, as the voters had decided in 1993 and 1996.

However, a kicker was added to the draft Charter relatively late in the process. The effective date of the two term limit was postponed from 2013, the date of the next election, to 2021, a political lifetime for a generation of candidates. All the councilmembers who voted to extend their own terms in 2008 were made eligible to seek a third term. Those newly elected in 2009 would also be able to serve twelve years. Reformers supported the new Charter because, if it were defeated, members could serve for three terms forever.

This brings us to November 2010. We will complete the story tomorrow, before Thanksgiving. If you have read this far, thank you for your patience. If you want to know any more, call or email us. If you agree or disagree, send us your views and we will post them on our blog.