Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Term Limits

Slicing, slashing cold on the bike ride to Boston City Hall did not please me. I was unhappier on the way home. While the gusts blew me on my bike toward the Common, I thought instead of the narrow defeat of mayoral term limits.

Yes, indeed, it was masochism that prompted me to spin those 10 or 11 miles in a wind chill of maybe 7F. I had a damned good idea the result before I left a much warmer house and a mug of black coffee.

The short and brutal reality is that the City Council came closer than it ever has to mandating term limits for the mayor and maybe even for itself. The votes were 7 to 6 against two mayoral terms (8 years), 8 to 5 against an amendment that would expand that to three terms (12 years), and 7 to 6 against councilor limits of six terms (12 years).

As clarified by one proponent of limits, those were to be consecutive terms. Nothing denied today would been a life ban or limit. A popular pol could serve the full term limit, sit out a term and come back to renewed glory.

I certainly don't want to cast Councilor Sam Yoon as our Don Quixote. He sponsored the mayoral term limits change, in keeping with his campaign issue. Interestingly enough, he was joined in this windmill joust by Councilor Michael Flaherty. The two did not run for re-election so that each could take a flier at mayor in the last election. Yet, during the race, Flaherty hemmed and hawed about term limits. He has come around.

For those keeping score, the vote on mayoral limits were:
  • Con: LaMattina, Linehan, Feeney, Yancey, Consalvo, Ciommo, Murphy
  • Pro: Tobin, Turner, Ross, Connolly, Flaherty, Yoon

Whose Ox?

My first question during the hearing period on this proposal was whether they were covering their own butts. The Globe ran a nifty chart of terms on council, which blew that thought away. It's true that the two longest serving councilors (Yancey at 13 terms and Feeney at 8) are anti, but Turner, Ross and Flaherty at 5 and Tobin at 4 are pro.

Another unsuccessful mayoral contender this year, Kevin McCrea, has his own theories. He espoused them on a Blue Mass Group post of mine on the hearing. Other than Turner, who at mid-60s is Mayor Tom Menino's age and senior on Council, and Rob Consalvo, who is one of the youngest councilors, the vote on limits broke by age. Oldsters opposed limits.

That brings up the most fascinating extrapolation. Yoon and Flaherty are off Council in January, replaced by Ayanna Pressley and Felix G. Arroyo, newbies. Neither of those campaigned on or to my knowledge has commented on term limits. Arroyo's dad was a Councilor for a couple of terms. Pressley is a blank slate on this.

I sat through a couple of hours of delays and drivel today, so you didn't have to.

The meeting jerked around all week with at least three or four time changes due to funerals. It was noon, 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and so forth, settling on the latter. At 10:35, Yoon was like the Easter bunny, leaving loving parting gifts and cards to his fellow councilors, but by 11:14, Connolly and Tobin were still with the dead. At 11:37, Yoon and Yancey, yin and yang on limits, were convivially chatting, smiling and joking in their adjacent seats in the chamber. Only about two dozen were in the three spectator sections, with maybe nine among those to be honored for a 911 response or related to those and another half dozen among staffers. It was a sharp fall-off from the many dozens for the hearing two days before.

Maureen Feeney chairs the Government Operations Committee that held the limits hearing. She clearly found the subject distasteful. She repeatedly reduced the issues to sing-song platitudes. In many ways, she is the Pooh of the body, a bear of very little brain.


At the hearing and meeting, she went on about being raised to vote, vote, vote. When several voters testified at the hearing that they had little interest in municipal elections, she did not take that as a condemnation of pre-determined outcomes. Rather, that was mortal flaw in the testifier. She represented the anti-limits contingent in declaring that voters had their say (and duty) every two and four years to decide who deserves to be in office. She also represented the related view that it is anti-democracy to limit the voters' choices by precluding perpetual office holders.

Her proposal to increasing voting participation was definitely not to increase turnover in office. Instead, she would have voter education in schools to prepare eager future citizens.

She returned at both meetings to the recently late Sen. Ted Kennedy. She said how much poorer (literally and figuratively) the commonwealth would be "if we imposed term limits on his leadership."

Chuck Turner suggested that we look to the national example of executive term limits. He noted that since Franklin Roosevelt's extraordinary extension in WWII, we have been well served by the two term (8 year) limits on the President. He said likewise, "I think we can be well served by having term limits for mayor."

Sam Yoon cut to the essence. He said this was not an indictment of Menino any more than the enactment of national term limits was of Roosevelt. Instead, he spoke of fresh ideas and noted that "the power of incumbency can be overwhelming."

Unfortunately, he is not the best spokesman for some of his best ideas. I relate to that in being stronger in both research and passion than rhetoric. However, two other councilors who favor limits were fine orators. The Johns, Connolly and Tobin, were far more grounded and intellectually sound than any of the opposed councilors. Unfortunately, as is the norm in legislative debate, no minds changed or even opened during the debate. It was all commentary.

Connolly noted the weak turnout in the municipal final and the disgraceful (16%) in the recent U.S. Senate primary. He contrasted that with the relatively strong voting for the at-large council in both preliminary and final elections. There were two open seats for the first time in decades. He said that term limits could ensure that this happened more frequently, increasing both voter interest and encouraging greater candidate participation.

He spoke several times of the dreadful dampening power of incumbency, money and special interests. Those were the reasons we have not defeated an incumbent mayor here since 1949. Even then, James Michael Curley only lost after his latest disgrace, five months in prison on mail fraud.

Likewise, Tobin alleged that the present system discouraged those who would be willing to run for office and serve. When they see a prohibitively wealthy and connected incumbent, they are unlikely to run. He said in that context, term limits "are not about personalities; they are about the future."

Just Posturing

At the hearing and meeting, it was increasingly difficult to believe that the anti-limit crew was at all sincere. To a one, they claimed that term limits took choice away from voters and were in fact anti-democracy. They held that every four years, voters could decide whether the mayor had performed well enough to continue. They discounted Connolly's evil triumvirate.

My own district councilor, Rob Consalvo (I recently moved from Tobin's neighborhood after 21 years), was perhaps the lamest here. He waxed that term limits would hurt democracy and the voter. He said the notion was "a dangerous and slippery slope when we begin to restrict who people can vote for."

Interestingly enough, among the bluster from the anti-limits crowd, several councilors mentioned that they had heard from constituents who favored limits, but were unswayed.

Yancey was certainly the plainest spoken of all those. He kept his high spirits, noting that he was aware his reputation was that Menino had him in his back pocket. Yet he said he honestly believed in term limits only by voter decision every for years for the mayor. He said he decided to go against his constituents on this.

The mealy mouth of the day was Salvatore LaMattina. He suggested that if there were to be term limits, they should come through a voter referendum.


I really hadn't been paying enough attention to the abstracts. Of course, we are in the territory of MassResistance, the Mass Family Institute and the Christian Civic League of Maine. Let the people vote is the call. It is the perfect way to pass the buck and pretend you are being true to the roots of our nation and commonwealth. Treat each important idea as though it were a town meeting discussion and you don't have to be a leader or be responsible for any resulting decision and its effects.

In that context, the points of the anti-limits folk fit perfectly. Give the voters a say every four years. If that isn't enough, make them petition for a referendum and force the issue on their own. Those are two fabulous cop-0uts that fail to address low voter turnout, low candidate participation, and stagnant government. Done and done.

Back on planet Responsibility, we don't know yet where Pressley and Arroyo will fall on this limits fence. We do know that two term limits champions are off Council in a couple of weeks. That can mean:
  • Limits maybe out to the indefinite future
  • Limits have only taken a December rest and will be a big issue early next year
  • Pro and con-limits councilors will woo the newcomers
  • Voters will hear about and talk about the seven old and young farts who may need to move along
Oratory note: I have long considered Sam Yoon the smartest person in city government here. Brain power doesn't often translate into the very different skill of speechifying. I recall some councilors with pretty dreadful politics (think Jim Kelly and Albert Dapper O'Neil) with brutal wit they mingled with their assertions. Not every speech does or can rouse us rabble. Council meetings would be a lot more fun if we heard more stirring rhetoric, the kind that inspires councilors to settle or change their minds on the spot.

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Unknown said...

Speakng of taking resonsibility, how about running against Consalvo? I'd vote for you.

Anonymous said...

At an At-Large debate, Pressley came out for Term Limits for Mayor & Felix opposed it. So I guess the vote will be 8-5 against in the new council.