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Tuesday's Two-Sided Ballot

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We participated in a City Hall press conference Monday with Ronald Lauder, the term limits advocate and Michael Long, the state Conservative Party chair.

The purpose of the event was to express support for Question 1, which will be on the ballot Tuesday. The Charter Revision Commission was formed, in part, to revisit the issue of term limits after the City Council unilaterally extended the eligibility of city elected officials, primarily themselves, from two to three four-year terms.

This decision by the Council, made after intense lobbying by Mayor Bloomberg, eliminated a section of the Charter that had been added in 1993 as the result of a referendum largely funded by Mr. Lauder. Nonetheless, an election is no less valid because one side has spent more than the other, nor does a contest necessarily go the biggest spender.

In the Republican mayoral primary in 1989, Mr. Lauder had competed with Rudy Giuliani for the Republican nomination to succeed Mayor Koch, who had lost his bid for a fourth term in a primary with David Dinkins. Giuliani won by a margin of 67-33, slightly better than two to one. Lauder spent $13 million on the race, the largest amount ever spent on a mayoral contest up until that time. Lauder ran a series of commercials attacking Giuliani which, while they did not benefit him, weakened Giuliani for the November contest against Dinkins, who won the mayoralty by a 47,080 vote margin (52%-48%).

Lauder's attacks on Giuliani were said to have been inspired by US Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who had a beef with Giuliani because after the Senator had approved Giuliani's appointment as U.S. Attorney by President Reagan in 1983, Giuliani proceeded to go after D'Amato and succeeded in sending his younger brother, Armand, to jail. Since anything Armand did was likely to have been in his brother's interest, one can see that the prosecution was more than a shot across the bow.

Back to term limits.

With the 1993 referendum slated to take effect in 2001, the City Council Democrats put the term limits issue on the ballot again in 1996, seeking to extend the limit from two terms to three. This proposal, basically a compromise between a two-term limit and no limit at all, was rejected by the public by a 54-46 margin, a much closer contest than the 59-41 vote by which term limits had been adopted in 1993. At the time, it was suggested to Council Speaker Peter Vallone that the Council had the legal authority to change term limits on its own, but the Speaker decided that since the original limit had been imposed after a referendum, it was more appropriate for any change to be submitted to the people for approval.

Five years later, the original referendum took effect for the 2001 election, and thirty-six out of the fifty-one Councilmembers then sitting were ineligible to seek re-election. Among the departing members was Speaker Vallone, who ran for mayor instead. Vallone lost to Mark Green in the Democratic primary and Green lost to Mayor Bloomberg in the general election.

Vallone was succeeded in his Council seat by his son, Peter Vallone, Jr. The younger Vallone was re-elected in 2005, but would have been ineligible to seek a third term in 2009 if the Council had not overruled the referenda and extended term limits for all 59 elected city officials: 3 citywide, 5 borough presidents and 51 councilmembers.

Others newly elected in 2001 included Joel Rivera of the Bronx, who succeeded his father, Assemblyman Jose Rivera. Joel was elected majority leader of the Council at the age of 22 as part of the deal that made Gifford Miller the Speaker at 32. Helen Diane Foster (Bronx) followed her father, Rev. Wendell Foster, into the Council; Erik Martin Dilan (Brooklyn), followed his father, Martin Malave Dilan; and Yvette Clarke (Brooklyn) (elected to Congress in 2006) succeeded her mother, Councilmember Una S. T. Clarke.

Term limits do not override patrilineal or matrilineal descent. It is the voters who choose whether to ratify the accession of the heir. Because of gerrymandering, name recognition, obstacles to ballot access, the role of local political clubs in which the parent is usually influential, and years of mailings paid for by the city, the heir has an enormous advantage over his or her rival. The voters decide the outcome in the Democratic primary. No children of retiring incumbents have been defeated while trying to succeed a parent in the City Council.

At Monday's news conference, Ronald Lauder announced his support for the charter change submitted by the Charter Revision Commission, under which the limit would revert to two terms in 2021. While many, including Mayor Bloomberg, found the 11-year delay to be ridiculous, it is still the only proposition before the voters that would nullify the Council's self-serving action in 2008.

If Question 1 is approved by the voters, efforts are likely to be made by good government forces to advance the effective date of the two-term limit to 2013, which means that no incumbents will be able to profit from the extension they gave themselves any more than they already have.

The proposal to be voted on next week is supported by Mayor Bloomberg, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Conservative leaders, liberals and reformers of many stripes. It is likely to receive editorial support, although one never knows.

It is opposed by those who feel there should be a longer limit, or no limit, on the number of times that public officials can stand for re-election. They argue that elections provide term limits imposed by the people. That claim is countered by the political reality that Council candidates are so unknown, so down-ballot and so underpublicized that the voters are deprived of an effective choice of candidates. Most New Yorkers do not know who their own Councilmember is.

Term limits are advocated to sweep out incumbents, remove career politicians, and give more people the chance to be elected to public office. Term limits are often opposed by incumbents, career public servants, and people who have already been elected to public office and want to retain their positions, salaries, pension eligibility, lulus, expense accounts, staffers and other perquisites of office.

The vote Tuesday is likely to be reduced somewhat by the fact that the Charter amendments will be printed on the back of the ballots (in small type), so voters will have to know enough to turn the ballot over to find the questions being asked. The dismissal yesterday of the executive director of the Board of Elections for alleged "insubordination" is not likely to speed the voting process next week.

Most newspapers have not yet made their recommendations, and people who are undecided will probably make up their minds in the next week, if they vote at all on the questions. There is another conflict because seven separate issues have been combined into a single Yes-No vote on Question 2.

The Charter Revision Commissioners say the Board of Elections told them this merger of issues was required for mechanical reasons in preparing the ballot so they had no choice. The Board of Elections denies this account, and now claims that they could accommodate a larger number of separate issues on the ballot.

The executive director of the Charter Commission, Lorna Goodman, is the former County Attorney of Nassau County and chief of the affirmative litigation division of the New York City Corporation Counsel's office. Her reputation for intelligence and integrity is high. She has been a lawyer in public service since 1976.

The 2010 Charter Commission, perhaps pressed for time, has taken halting steps toward reform. Their recommendations come nowhere near Mayor Bloomberg's aspiration to reorganize city government. Just as the Yankees have to wait until next year, so do our hopes for substantive change in the City Charter.

It could be desirable to support the minor improvements offered - although hardly anyone understands most of them - rather than end up with nothing to show for seven months' work by a generally praiseworthy Commission and its diligent chair, CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who told the story that when Mayor Bloomberg first asked him to chair the Commission, he thought to himself that he needed that like a lochenkopf. Later he relented, and took the unpaid job.

A thought: voters should not take out their justified anger and frustration with government by opposing, on principle, the legitimate, but limited, proposals that are being put before them, anachronistic as Question 1 may be.

Rule 29-P: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." So wrote Voltaire in 1764.