2005-12-02 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Let me say right off the bat that I would never vote for a City Council member who supports doing away with term limits by legislative fiat.

That’s a declarative statement that needs no clarification. City voters have gone to the well twice now, once in 1993 and again in 1996, to tell our city legislators that they want an eight-year limit on all city offices.

In fact, I wish fervently that the voters could have a voice on state offices as well. I would love to see an eight-year limit on state officeholders as well.

It’s not that I don’t like the people who hold those offices and represent Rockaway. Personally, I like them all very well. It’s just that many of them have been in office so long that the word “entrenched” doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

In fact, I usually have a personal liking for most elected officials. The one exception was City Councilman Al Stabile, who was wrongheaded, intransigent and an anathema to the peninsula he was supposed to serve. Actually, I don’t like State Senator Ada Smith very much either. She represents Broad Channel and probably does not even know how to get to that community. In fact, in all my years of covering that community, I don’t remember a time when I ever saw her in Broad Channel. Add to that the fact that she keeps assaulting police officers and you can see why she might not be my favorite legislator.

I like Joe Addabbo and James Sanders. I like Audrey Pheffer, Michelle Titus (our Assembly members) and Mal Smith (our State Senator). They are all personable people and have done things for the people of Rockaway. Often, however, they make decision more on what the Democratic Party leadership wants than on what Rockaway residents need. On the whole, most of them have done a decent job.

That doesn’t mean that I want to see them in the job for life.

What brings this up now is that a number of City Council members seem to be deaf. The people have spoken twice, but they don’t seem to have heard what the public said.

As one pundit said recently, “Either the council is hard of hearing or it is breathtakingly arrogant.”

The latter seems to be closer to the truth.

Those council members are going back to 1996, when the voters roundly defeated a proposal that would have extended the term limits to 12 years from eight. Nearly ten years later, the council again believes that the extension is a good idea.

This time, however, they are planning to end-run the voters by making the change legislatively rather than by referendum.

The move to do the change legislatively posits the idea that the people just don’t understand how important the city council jobs are and therefore should not have a say on how long they should serve.

While the change is couched in philosophical and political terms, it is nothing more that a power grab by a bunch of people who would not be in office in the first place if it were not for term limits.

Talk about gratitude. “Hey,” the mantra goes, “it was great when term limits kicked in and I got a chance at the job, but now that I got it, I want to keep it because term limits are disruptive to the legislative process.”

As the bookies favorite statement goes, “it seems to be a lock.”

At a recent forum, none of the people who want to replace Giff Miller as the Speaker of the City Council opposed extending the limits for four more years.

Melinda Katz, one of the candidates for the speaker’s job, said, “I would use legislation to make sure our term is at least one more term than the Mayor of New York.”

Katz gave the impression that she would rather do away with term limits entirely. I am sure she would.

Joel Rivera, a Bronx Councilman, was more succinct. He wants to add the extra term or “to let the natural Democratic process take place and repeal it entirely.” Gee, I thought that the two referendums were the “Democratic Process” at work. I guess I was wrong, that only the legislature could work the Democratic process correctly.

My wrong!

Councilman Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn pointed out why only the legislature could make the change.

“Money has perverted the concept of bringing the issue directly to the people,” he said recently, probably thinking of Ron Lauder, the multimillionaire who gets his money from painting women’s faces, and who funded the two referendums.

Councilman Joseph Addabbo, who represents the west end of Rockaway, has an interesting take on the question.

“I am opposed to term limits,” he told me. “It takes away the power of the people to vote for the person they want.

When people get tired of an officeholder, they simply have to vote that person out of office and we have done just that in Rockaway.”

Having said that, Addabbo takes the high road in the debate.

“The change in term limits, whether it be to repeal limits entirely or to extend the limits, must be done in a referendum,” he says. “As representative, we should listen to the voice of the people. We can do this legislatively, but we should not.”

I agree with Addabbo that the voice of the people should be heard. Term limits are too important an issue to be left to those who want to retain their jobs at any cost.

Why do we need term limits? Take a look at the election last month.

Of the 51 current members, seven are being forced out by term limits. One sought another office. Of the remaining 43, 42 of them were reelected. Very few had any serious contenders. Both of our council members, Addabbo and Sanders, ran unopposed.

In both the city races and in state races, incumbents hardly ever lose. That is a fact of life and that is what brought up term limits in the first place.

Will Ron Lauder, who probably has even more money now than he did ten years ago, let his put project go quietly into the legislative night.

You can bet your bippy (am I dating myself here) that he will not.

The wealthy Republican said recently that if the legislation to extend term limits passes, he would fund a new referendum to overturn that legislation.

“I am going to fight [term limit extensions] in every way,” he told reporters. “I will put everything I have behind it. I did not fight the battle twice to give up now.”

Private citizens such as Lauder can trigger the referendum process through the petition process. You can bet that Lauder will quickly ramp up the process and get it done prior to the 2007 election.

Or, the Mayor can call a charter revision committee to hear the question and decide whether or not he wants it on the ballot.Generally speaking, the charter revision committees follow the mandates of the mayor who appoints them. One would have to believe that Lauder woud fund the fight once again and that any move the City Council makes would be trumped by the vote of the people.

Bloomberg has come out against extending term limits, calling the move on the part of the City Council a “disgusting move to overturn the will of the people.”

He has publicly stated that he has no intention of running again four years from now, so he cannot be impacted by any change.

He can trump the council by empanelling a Charter Revision Commission that would certainly come up with a ballot proposal to overturn any legislation the council passes.

Will he do that?

“It’s an option that remains open,” the mayor’s spokesperson said.

Keep tuned. It’s going to be an interesting ride.

There are really three groups and a rich individual in the mix: Lauder, who has his company’s millions to work with; those legislators who want change, but want it to come through a referendum and those who want change to come legislatively.

Keep track of the debate. It has more to do with your standard of living than you might think.

While you’re keeping track of the debate and events surrounding term limits, make a note to vote against any council member who votes to extend or entirely do away with term limits legislatively.

City Councilman Addabbo is right. The people have spoken and the people should have the final say.

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