Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Term Limits? Not So Much

Everyone loves the idea of term limits, an idea taht is well on us, right? Well, not really.

In preparing for our Left Ahead! podcast with Boston City Councilor John Tobin, I checked a bit. He's a gutsy guy and he announced that he'd propose them for his body as well as for mayor here.

Among other things I found was that New England in general, and Massachusetts particularly is not so hot on the practice. We are one of a small number of states in the country that does not limit terms for governor. We also have no term limits on legislators. When we did have one from 1990, the Supreme Judicial Court overturned them in 1997. It ruled that the legislature did not have the authority to change part of the constitution on its own.

In addition, only three municipalities have any. Those are:

CityPop.YearLimitedLimitsMethod of
% of Vote in Favor% of Vote Opp.# of Votes in Favor# of Votes Opp.
Methuen31,5341993mayor, council3 terms
(2 yr. terms)
charter amend.66.4%33.6%4.1722.109
Provincetown3,5611991council3 terms
(3 yr. terms)
charter meeting vote, not recordedn/an/an/a
Stow4,0401991all elected and appointed officials3 terms
(3 yr. terms)
charter revisiontown meeting vote, not recordedn/an/an/a

The net has a a lot of such info. The best central location is the source of that chart above, the U.S. Term Limits organization site.

You can contrast that feeble list with New York State's. There, towns as small as 1,300 to New York City limit their leaders' terms.

In Boston, we like our mayor/kings, particularly if they are entertaining rascals like James Michael Curley, who served four terms, including one that saw him spend five months in jail in the middle for mail fraud.

Yesterday, Council Tobin noted how few mayor we had in recent memory. Check a list of the early mayors to see single terms dominating. Later mayors seemed to have figured out it was more than public service, more than an adventure. Many neither advanced nor returned to their previous careers.

The incumbents and their supporters who advance arguments for keeping mayors as long as they get reelected are not terribly convincing. Truth be told, if a 12 or 24-year term mayor led us to increasing glory, safe streets, great school and such, they'd have win the debate. It simply doesn't happen.

Tobin's point was that even respected and beloved mayors and council members get set and stale and even lazy. Look at most of the 20th century till now. Curley was in four terms, with short breaks from 1914 through 1950. Then:
  • 10 years — John Hynes (plus Curley's five months in jail in 1947)
  • 8 years — John Collins
  • 16 years — Kevin White
  • 9 years — Ray Flynn
  • 14 and counting — Tom Menino
Tobin iterated several times that he likes Tom Menino, who is a long-term friend of the family who even took him ice skating when Tobin was a kid. However, he points out that we don't like to turn out incumbent mayors.

Moreover, on the councilor side, he'd like fewer and longer terms. Not the least driver is the constant two-year drill. Like football's two-minute version, councilors know they are up for reelection ever other year. They end up spending far too much time and energy that should go toward their jobs campaigning and fund raising.

It will be fascinating to see how the council and Menino react. If this comes up for public debate, that should be worth the free admission to the session.

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