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New York City's Corruption is Interesting Because It is So Visible
Henry Stern discusses the easing of term limits for NYC Council members, who many see as doing nothing.
The Rascals Are At It Again;
Councilmembers Want Four More Years
Although Two Referenda Backed Term Limits
By Henry J. Stern
June 14, 2005
Twelve years after term limits for city elected officials were adopted by referendum, the City Council is making its third attempt to overturn the decision of the voters. The background and status of the issue is discussed in detail by Sam Roberts in an article which began on B1 and jumped to B4 in Saturday's Times. The column is not likely to be widely read, since on weekends in June, many New Yorkers are out of town, at parks and beaches, or occupying themselves in other ways than reading political analyses. In fact, prominent people have announced their divorces on Friday evening so as to attract minimal public attention.
Mr. Roberts has written an authoritative and sophisticatead piece which describes the history of the controversy and focuses on the most recent efforts of City Councilmembers to prolong their tenure. The term limits, approved in 1993, resulted in a nearly complete change of personnel after the 2001 election. Without making a definitive judgment on the new Council, (the members range in industry, intellect and integrity from Yassky to Jennings) it is undisputed that a lot of dead wood was removed four years ago-people who won re-election term after term in districts gerrymandered for their convenience.
The latest effort at resuscitation is a brazen attempt by the incumbents (the usual suspects) to extend the eight year limit on their terms to twelve years, or possibly to abolish term limits altogether, notwithstanding two referenda that have been held on the matter, in which the people decisively supported the two-term limit for all city elected officials (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents and 51 councilmembers). The rule was simple: eight and out.
The Council's first foray into the area of term limits came in 1996, when under the leadership of Speaker Peter F. Vallone, it sent the issue back to the public by placing it on the ballot for a second referendum. When the votes were counted, repeal had lost, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent. Term limits stayed in effect. It is to the credit of Speaker Vallone, however, that he tried to reverse the public's decision by giving them another opportunity to vote on the matter. Fair and reasonable.
The next attempt was in 2001, the year that a majority of the Council would be ineligible to run for re-election. A few had decamped the previous year to the State Legislature, which has no such term limit rules. In fact, the longest serving state senator in the United States sits in Albany, our sleepy capital. He is John J. Marchi of Staten Island, who first took office in 1957.
Senator Marchi's greatest political moment came in June 1969, when he surprisingly defeated the incumbent mayor, John V. Lindsay, in the Republican primary. Lindsay went on to win re-election on the Liberal Party line in November, the first and only time the Liberals elected a mayor on their own. Mr. Marchi, the Republican candidate, came in third in the general election, with the Democratic nominee, City Comptroller Mario A. Procaccino, running second.
Many political analysts believe that, if Marchi had not defeated Lindsay in the primary, the race would have been one and one between Lindsay and Procaccino, and the comptroller would have won. Because of the upset of the incumbent in the primary, Lindsay was opposed in November by two (not one) Italian American and relatively conservative (by New York standards) candidates, Lindsay was re-elected with a plurality, but not a majority, of the vote.
Not wishing to be involved in another Republican primary, Lindsay and a number of his aides switched to the Democratic Party in August 1971. He then sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, a candidacy that was widely regarded as premature at best.
In the 2001 attempt to extend their political lives, the incumbents garnered substantial support in the Council. The bill was defeated, however, in the Committee on Government Operations, in a 5-4 vote, with the deciding vote cast by the lone Republican on the committee, Stephen J. Fiala of Staten Island.
Mr. Fiala said that at the time he was personally opposed to term limits, but he felt that in a democracy, a decision made by the people should only be changed by the people, and not by a small group of those who would be adversely affected by the decision. Fiala is now the Richmond County Clerk, and a civic and environmental activist on the island.
In 2003, the Council pulled off a successful ploy which tweaked term limits slightly. Speaker Gifford Miller had been elected in January 2002 for a two year term. There was a midterm Council election to be held in 2003 (and every twenty years thereafter), required because of the redistricting that followed the decennial census of 2000. Miller and the Council passed a bill defining a term as four years, not two, so that he could serve four years as speaker. The bill also had a trick provision preventing people who had left the Council in 2001 from running in 2003, sparing incumbents from challenge by their immediate predecessors.
The Miller bill was challenged in court in Brooklyn. The law was invalidated in the Supreme Court but eventually upheld in the Appellate Division, 3-1. The feeling was that the changes were minor, and consistent with the eight year term, although some members who held fractional terms (like Mr. Miller) could serve longer. There is language in the opinion that the Council had the right to change the law, but a more substantial modification is likely to be disputed more vigorously.
That brings us to the present, where Councilmember Gale Brewer of Manhattan plans to introduce a bill, to be considered after the 2005 election, for the Council to extend the two-term limit to three terms. It is possible that others may seek to abolish the restriction altogether, or shrewdly wait until 2009 to change the three term limit to four terms.
Why should anyone want to leave the Council, with its six figure salary, including lulus, the lack of any restriction on outside work or income, the ample staffs, the mailing privileges at public expense for self-serving illustrated brochures, and all the privileges and emoluments which come with good pay and light work, which basically consists of intoning 'Aye' upon hearing your surname mentioned on a roll call?
The fight is just beginning, and we predict that newspapers and good government groups still have the vitality to oppose this latest attempt to overrule the people of the City of New York, who have twice voted that eight years is enough for these worthies, and at the end of that time they should be able to either find themselves another public office, or get a job elsewhere if they can.
But the Council insiders are utterly without shame, or regard for the decisions of the electorate. They can be expected, on the basis of past performance, to do everything they can to preserve their privileged positions of pomp and power.
Today, the cat is out of the bag. We know months in advance what the rascals are up to. And public discussion of the proposed coup can take place during the campaign, rather than after the election, when those elected will have four years in office before the voters can hold them accountable.
The City Council may not mean much in the larger picture. It was in 1965 that I first said that "the Council is less than a rubber stamp, because a rubber stamp at least leaves an impression." It has gained considerable power since then, in great part because of the persistent efforts of former Speaker Vallone. The Council has not significantly improved, however, in terms of the quality or independence of its members, so the negative evaluation which could have been applied to the former Board of Aldermen remains relevant in the 21st century.
One cannot leave the subject of the Board of Aldermen, predecessor to the City Council, without telling the story of the most abrupt conclusion ever to a meeting of the Board. Someone opened the rear door of the Council chamber and shouted, "Alderman, your saloon's on fire", and the room emptied immediately.
Today's City Council is much more reluctant than the old Board to clear out of their ornate chamber at City Hall, even when the law tells them it is time to go. Their final public service should be to depart, not in haste, but on time.
Hasta la vista, Councilmembers.
Council Moves Toward Easing Term Limits
By SAM ROBERTS, NY TIMES, June 11, 2005
Four years ago, term limits began reshaping New York City government, limiting the mayor, other citywide elected officials, and members of the City Council to just two terms in office. The rule was imposed after voters approved the change in a citywide referendum.
Now the City Council, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, is considering altering the rule, at least for council members - to allow them to serve three terms. And in a twist, many believe the change would not require the approval of voters.
In reconsidering term limits, the Council could also consider other changes, including abolishing the limits completely, not only for its own members but for the mayor and other city officeholders. But the consensus at this point seems to favor an extension to three terms and only for council members.
Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, a West Side Democrat, said she had asked Council lawyers to draft legislation that would allow members to serve three four-year terms instead of two. She said she did not intend to introduce the legislation until after November, though, to avoid embarrassing incumbents, including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who is running for mayor this year and who is barred by the limits from seeking re-election . The measure might not even be considered until the new Council convenes in January.
A spokesman for Mr. Miller, Steven Sigmund, said the speaker "has always been against legislative term limits - he thinks there are term limits called elections." But he believes that "any change should be put to the voters," Mr. Sigmund said. Nevertheless, Mr. Miller will no longer be in the Council if it takes up the matter in January.
Easing the term limits is likely to have wide support in the Council, since as many as two-thirds of the current members would be ineligible to run in 2009 under the current law.
"There's a buzz about it," said Joel Rivera, the Council majority leader. "But obviously, people want to get through the elections first."
Term limits were imposed after a citywide referendum in 1993, were reaffirmed by voters three years later, and except for a relatively minor change in 2003, have survived efforts by the Council to overturn or relax them.
"I benefited from term limits but I never supported them," said Ms. Brewer, who won her seat when her predecessor reached his term limit. "Some of my colleagues want to get rid of them altogether. I just don't know whether that would happen or not. Within 12 years you can become very knowledgeable, and the Council, on a legislative basis, needs this time."
Councilman Lewis A. Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat who has opposed term limits, said he would probably support permitting council members a third consecutive term. .
"We spend two years finding out where the bathroom is, and the next two years raising enough money to get re-elected," Mr. Fidler said. And once incumbents win a second and last term, he added, "everyone is going to spend the next four years figuring out what they want to be when they grow up."
He recalled that the Council itself changed the law two years ago to let Mr. Miller and five others serve longer, since they had been elected to an abbreviated two-year term because of legislative reapportionment. "We did that with a wink," he said. "This is a bigger wink." Mr. Fidler added that he, for one, was "hesitant to change term limits without a vote of the people who imposed them."
That change in the provision was challenged in court on the grounds that the City Charter mandates a referendum on any law that "changes the term of an elective officer." But the change was eventually upheld.
If that precedent is upheld, the council members could vote to allow themselves a further term after they are re-elected in November or even after they are sworn in next January.
"It's believed that the Council does have the legal right," Councilman Rivera said. Some experts in election law agree.
"The Council can change the Charter on its own except for certain matters that require a referendum," said Jerry H. Goldfeder, an election lawyer. "This doesn't." But, he added, "if these City Council members want to make this change they should not wait until after they're re-elected."
While several civic groups agree that a three-term limit might make more sense than two, they object to the proposed amendment on two counts: They argue that the proposal should be debated during this year's municipal campaigns, not after them, and they say that changing the City Charter should be left to the voters in a referendum and not to the Council itself.
"No one wants to address this, but it's the unspoken secret," said Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit civic group that opposed term limits. .
Leaders of several good-government groups say they would not oppose another referendum raising the limits to three terms.
"We opposed term limits, but I have to say it certainly has reinvigorated and brought new leadership to the City Council," Mr. Dadey said. "Changing from two to three I don't think would necessarily be a bad idea, but I think it should be discussed in a far more open and public way, given that the voters rebuffed the Council twice."
Henry J. Stern, founder and head of New York Civic, a watchdog group that monitors city government. , said he, too, would support raising the limits from two terms to three, but only by referendum.
"I changed my mind," he said. "I think term limits have been very good." Mr. Stern said he would oppose term limits were elections conducted more fairly, but that he supported them now, "since elections are fixed by election laws, gerrymandering, the role of party machines and the fact that it is more likely for a council member to be assassinated than to be defeated at the polls."
A spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Jordan Barowitz, said the mayor opposed any change in the term-limits provision.
Some advocates of relaxing the limits argue that Mr. Miller's mayoral candidacy itself is an argument for their position, because he would make a more seasoned mayoral candidate four years from now. "He's been forced from his leadership position before he's ready," said one officeholder who asked not to be identified to avoid antagonizing Mr. Miller. "He's barely had time to learn from his mistakes."
Mr. Goldfeder, the election lawyer, has been an opponent of term limits, but "putting that aside, is term limits something that has worked, is it effective?"
He added: "Is the learning curve so steep that they need time in office to be efficacious as members, or are two terms sufficient for them to learn and do an efficient job? Do lobbyists have more power because they're around longer than elected officials? Have we gotten fresh faces or people who retread themselves and their relatives? The most important test is on policy issues, whether it matters one way or another. At this juncture I'd like to give it more time to see if it works."