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Blog: Term Limits Will Not Solve the Problem Measure C Seeks to Address

A secretive donation by a GOP PAC to the West Hollywood term-limits group last fall is troubling. But the real reason to vote against Measure C is that it is the wrong way to shake up City Hall.

In a city in which about 90 percent of voters are not Republicans, a secretive donation by a GOP-affiliated PAC in the early push for term limits for the West Hollywood City Council is troubling. But the real reason to vote against Measure C is that it is the wrong way to shake up City Hall.

Shadow Government

The rationale for term limits is that they wrest entrenched power from elected officials, which is certainly true. But where does that power -- that institutional memory and know-how -- go? Well-intentioned advocates want to believe it is inherited by the new, inexperienced politicians who are cycled in.

In practice, however, this institutional power devolves over time into the hands of what is essentially an unelected and unaccountable shadow government comprised of staffers, bureaucrats and lobbyists. Even when these shadow governments are benign, the fact that they are unelected makes them generally less responsive to voters than they are to corporate and special interests.

Term limits produce successive waves of newly elected neophytes and amateurs who, with each new freshman class, became increasingly reliant on the permanent staff -- then, by the time the elected officials are starting to become experienced and professional, they are cycled out. This is precisely what happened in the California legislature. In 1990, voters imposed term limits of three terms in the Assembly and two terms in the Senate. By the end of the first decade, the entrenched power was gone but it had been replaced by self-perpetuating disruption and dysfunction. As a partial fix to this, last June voters passed Proposition 28, which reconfigured the limits to a maximum of 12 years' service in the Legislature, whether in the Assembly or the Senate.

Deferred Effects

The good news for West Hollywood is that even if Measure C passes, it likely would not have any noticeable effect until several cycles after the current incumbents have been term-limited out, meaning no sooner than 30 years from now. Why? The push for term limits is driven by a desire to end the decades-long tenures of four of the five current councilmembers. But even if Measure C passes, all five incumbents will be allowed to serve three more terms. Given the advantage of incumbency, they could all continue to be reelected until they are term-limited out in 2025 and 2027. (If Jon Heilman, the longest-serving councilmember, continues to win reelection, by the time he is term-limited out in 2027, he will have served 43 years on the city council.) The revolving door effect would not kick in  until after their successors have served out their terms.

The reason this might be dragged out so long is that Measure C does nothing to address the underlying reason that councilmembers are nearly always reelected.

What gives the incumbents their advantage? When I first moved here a Russian acquaintance jokingly described West Hollywood demographics as  "one-third gay, one-third Russian and one-third 'other.'" This is silly and inherently imprecise but, for the sake of illustration, the councilmembers are routinely reelected because they win among all three of these groups. Conversely, challengers tend to focus on building support among the first two "thirds" -- gays and "others" -- but even when they do well in the precincts where those two groups vote, it's not enough to put them over the top. 

The fact that incumbents do well in precincts east of Fairfax, where many Russian immigrants and their American-born descendants live, means that those voters are generally satisfied with the job the councilmembers are doing. Challengers do not have the same sort of access to these voters, of course, and this puts them at a disadvantage, including at the most basic level: name recognition.

The solution to unseating the incumbents then is not term limits. A faster, more effective and healthier way to end the cycles of incumbency would be to deploy the sort of grass-roots energy that developed behind Measure C into identifying and supporting candidates who can build strong coalitions in the east city as well as the west and center. The result of this would be representation on the West Hollywood City Council that more accurately reflects the diversity of the city.

Secret Donors

Term Limits are bad policy, and Measure C is bad politics. In September, West Hollywood Patch published a news release submitted by California Term Limits PAC, in which the PAC announced that "at the request of the leadership" of the local West Hollywood grass-roots term-limits group, it was making "a significant investment" to fund signature gathering in the petition drive for the ballot initiative that became Measure C.

The president of California Term Limits PAC is Jon Fleischman, a Republican power broker who writes about state politics at the Flash Report. In 2012, the online arm of Americans for Prosperity, a tea party organization funded by the Koch brothers, gave Fleischman its Andrew Brietbart "blogger of the year" award -- Breitbart, who died last year, was a tea party leader who was best known for releasing videos to Fox News that were selectively edited to deceptively depict liberals in a bad light. In 2008, Fleischman came out against marriage equality, an issue that is near and dear to us around here, when he lent his support to Proposition 8. According to the California Term Limits PAC website, the PAC is based in Orange County.

Orange County Republican-affliated PACs have as much right as anyone to make significant investments in West Hollywood politics, as long as the donations are transparent -- but that is not the case here. Fleischman's PAC makes an unequivocal promise to its donors that their identities will be kept secret. According to the PAC's website, "It is our practice, because of the number of politicians who dislike the mission of our organization, to keep the identity of our donors, large and small, confidential."

Because the identity of the PAC's donors is secret, no one can say whether the money came from individuals, corporations or organizations who might have conflicts of interest with the city government. Were they, for example, billboard companies or real-estate developers with local interests? Except for the Orange County Republicans behind the PAC, no one knows who funded this investment in West Hollywood politics.

The fact that West Hollywood voters will never know the source of funding for that significant investment in Measure C is sufficient reason to vote against it. But the fundamental reason to oppose this specific ballot initiative is that it does not do what people who support it want it to do, which is to wrest power from entrenched incumbents. Even if Measure C passes, it's possible that no currently serving councilmember would be term-limited out -- to put it in perspective -- until Pres. Obama has been out of office for eight years.

* * * * *

About me: I am a lifelong Democrat but I am not affiliated with No on C, members of the city council or any political organization. I write about politics at Pensito Review and I was the editor of the late Gore Vidal's official website. I am also writing a book about the history of crime and scandal on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood's golden era titled "Playground to the Stars."

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Don Jones January 30, 2013 at 12:07 AM
Well Mr. Ponder I can only assume you are carrying someone's water since you seem to have no transparancy concerns about the secret donors to the the West Hollywood Voters for Choice - No on C campaign. Who is behind Excel Property Managment that donated $5,000. West LA Health PAC $1,000? Sunset Tower Hotel $2,500? You have lots of concerns about an Oranage County group but not one question about a No on C campaign based in Chatsworth. Chatsworth!? Does a group based in Chatsworth have the right to call themselves West Hollywood Voters for Choice? Doesn't that warrant at least an eye brow raising in an 1,136 word post questioning funding sources?
me January 30, 2013 at 04:50 AM
YES, WELL SAID!!!!!
scott ferguson January 30, 2013 at 08:28 PM
The ONLY reason these outside forces are spending money is in reaction to a ballot measure initiated by secret Republican money. Isn't that the most important thing? And this excellent essay backs up the points I made months ago about my worries about what those right-wing forces have in mind next for WeHo. They already (with Steve Martin's help) destroyed a terrific public servant (Betsy Butler) because she led on giving some basic rights to farm workers. Who will they next try to destroy, all with the help of the naive, single-minded anti-Council forces in this city? A lot of you don't understand the ramifications of what you have gotten involved with. More than any other reason it is why I hope Prop C loses.
Sheila Lightfoot January 30, 2013 at 09:14 PM
If misdirection is your way of trying to convince voters that term limits is bad for us, it’s a poor substitute for what we see happening with our own eyes in our city everyday. You want us to believe you instead of our own “lying” eyes? Here are some facts. Californians for Term Limits is a non-partisan organization. What you call their significant investment in West Hollywood was hiring an independent signature gathering company that put 3 fulltime signature gatherers on the ground for a short period of time - one a WeHo resident. They make their living collecting signatures, not being political operatives. If you consider that significant, consider this - we had over 60 resident volunteers gathering signatures. Along with gathering signatures, we registered almost 400 voters - does anyone want to guess what party most of them affiliated with? Not a very good strategy for Republicans to take over West Hollywood. Also, 3450 residents signed the petitions - over 56% of the number of voters (6100) who cast a ballot in the last election. The top vote-getter in that election was John D’Amico with 2876 votes. Council seats aren’t won with a majority of the votes. Finally… saying residents are all too feeble minded to serve on the Council without being run over by staffers, bureaucrats and lobbyists is absurd and insulting. Have you watched a Council meeting lately? That’s who’s running the show now – and that’s exactly what we intend to “change.”
Rudolf Martin February 01, 2013 at 07:18 AM
i strongly disagree with the premise of this blog (that "the push for term limits is driven by a desire to end the decades-long tenures of four of the five current councilmembers"). i do not expect any current council member to be affected by this measure (they will be dealt with by the voters in the next few elections), the measure is expressly written to avoid near and mid term politics. and speaking of outside special interests: of the 45 listed "monetary contributions" received by John Duran only ONE comes from West Hollywood. while that is perfectly legal, i would like my council member beholden to the local residents and businesses, not outside interests. i agree with one point that mr. ponder makes: the term limits measure does not address the 'shadow government' issue which is certainly a concern. but implicitly he reasons that an entrenched council member will stand up to the special interests better than a council member who is serving 'only' 12 years. as sheila points out, i don't see any evidence of that with current long time council members, actually quite the contrary.
Stephanie February 04, 2013 at 11:40 PM
I am a life-long, Democrat, a long-time resident of WeHo (before there even was a WeHo), a donor to Yes on C for term limits, a volunteer signature gatherer and I think I will talk to Scott Schmidt about releasing names, city of residence and amounts from all of our donors, if No on C will do the same. In fact I challenge you, Mr. Ponder, to take the first step and post names, amounts and place of residence for you and each of your supporters to do the same. For those reading this who want more information click on http://www.wehotermlimits.com/ It's time for positive change in West Hollywood. My rights to vote on this measure are clear. As far as inexperienced people ending up on the council, I would like to hear how voting a new person in is different in your mind than when the current council appointed a short-term resident, inexperienced person, Lindsay Horvath and took away my right to vote for Sal Guariello's replacement. Answers anyone? How DID that happen?
Wendell Jones February 05, 2013 at 07:05 PM
I spoke to a number of canvassers collecting signatures at the Gelson's near where I live and at the Trader Joe's. Not one of them was a West Hollywood resident. And I spoke to more than three people. Term limits have consistently been bad for progressives. They can not raise the same amounts of money landlords and big corporate interests contribute. If term limits wins, this city will be flooded with landlord money in twelve years that will be focused on one thing, slowly but surely dismantling rent control a piece at a time. Until term limits were passed we had real rent control in West Hollywood. Then when state senator David Roberti was driven out of office by term limits, landlords were able to drive a vacancy decontrol law through the committee he had controlled. The new less progressive democrats who had come in under term limits happily passed a law allowing landlords to raise rents on a unit whenever it is vacated. Term limits on a state level gutted our rent control. Now term limits on a local level will destroy what we have left in twelve years if this law is passed.
Sheila Lightfoot February 06, 2013 at 05:08 AM
Oh, a number of canvassers? More than 3? You must get around... maybe you were talking to canvassers for some of the statewide ballot initiatives. Funny how you never ran into any of the more than 60 of us resident volunteers who gathered most of the signatures. Maybe it's just selective memory. And, as for the new less progressive democrats ruining the state, perhaps you should blame our incumbent council members for aggressively supporting all of them. I notice in your comment on a story on another publication you simply say you talked to canvassers - none of whom were from WeHo. Maybe we should put together a line-up for you.
scott ferguson February 06, 2013 at 06:28 AM
Thanks for speaking truth to would-be power. This well-meaning but feckless group doesn't understand the law of unintended consequences. They have been a massive failure in local politics because they don't know how to appeal to a wide group of WeHo residents. They, like all term limits proponents, want to change the rules because they keep losing. The reason incumbents keep getting reelected because our government works and has created a terrific city - hardly perfect, but far above average. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And certainly don't try to fix it with anti-democratic measures backed by resources from right wingers who stand against everything we stand for. Oh, and I also questioned canvassers. One was local, four were from out of town.
me February 06, 2013 at 06:39 AM
....and almost ALL of duran, prang's and, no on measure C donors are from outside of west hollywood (yes, developers and all)!!!....it's all on the weho.org site for your inspection folks!!!
me February 06, 2013 at 06:42 AM
TERM LIMITS ARE NECESSARY BECAUSE HEILMAN IS A DICTATOR, TYRANT, CHILDISH, CLASSLESS AND A BULLY.....SUMS IT UP IN MY HEAD!!....SOME FURTHER INSIGHT ON HEILMAN: At the core of extreme narcissism is egotistical preoccupation with self, personal preferences, aspirations, needs, success, and how he is perceived by others. Extreme narcissists tend to be persons who move towards eventually cutting others off and becoming emotionally isolated. Narcissism, in lay terms, basically means that a person is totally absorbed in self. The extreme narcissist is the center of his own universe. The extreme narcissist is frozen in childhood. He became emotionally stuck at the time of his major trauma of separation/attachment.
Wendell Jones February 06, 2013 at 05:40 PM
Sheila Lightfoot, the reason I never ran into your 60 canvassers was that none of them ever showed up at my apartment building, or at my friend's house a few doors down, or at any of my friend's homes in the East end. Every canvasser I spoke to was at Trader Joe's on the east side or at the Gelson's. I never spoke to a resident canvasser because I never met one. Believe me, if I had I would have given them a piece of my mind about their anti-democratic power grab. I am not looking forward to my 70s when the landlords will make the big push to remove my unit from rent control and drive me out of this community.
me February 07, 2013 at 08:51 PM
oh yes, here we go again...only YOU scott understand the ramifications....good lord, do you really believe your own rhetoric???....the outcome of the election will be what it'll be.....i know you can't stand that more than 3,000 people got this on the ballot in the first place, but that's just a small portion of the # of people who are completely FED-UP with this council ruining our fine city.....as for betsy butler, even SHE was a gracious loser, why can't you be?......holding on to so much anger is going to kill you.....it's no way to live really....i'd love to help if you will allow me.....namaste
me February 07, 2013 at 08:54 PM
HOGWASH!!!!.....whats anti-democratic about allowing the people the chance to VOTE on an issue????
me February 13, 2013 at 05:25 AM
BREAKING NEWS....JOHN DURAN FRAUD: http://www.wehoville.com/2013/02/12/500-john-duran-campaign-donor-says-hes-never-heard-of-weho-councilmember/ UGH, APPALLING!!!….this piece speaks volumes as to why duran not only needs to go, but should also be investigated beyond the current investigation by the LA district attorney…. if you are as sick as we are about this crap, and other hideous stuff going down in weho, please join our group….we are working on plans to inform the public (through demonstrations, video, gorilla street marketing etc) as to what is going on in the remaining days before the election please email us at: takebackweho@aol.com ….our belief is that most residents have NO IDEA whats happening at city hall and we want to get the message out there QUICKLY….. it’s easy to complain on these websites, but this is a call for ACTION!!!!
me February 17, 2013 at 05:59 PM
JOIN COUNCILMAN JOHN D'AMICO IN VOTING YES FOR TERM LIMITS!!! http://www.wehoconfidential.com/2013/02/vote-yes-on-c-march-5th-2013.html#.USEZ-x2yBCA
Stephanie February 17, 2013 at 07:27 PM
Here's a new facebook page where you can access news stories from various sources about what's going on behind the scenes and right under our noses in West Hollywood. Check it out. Become informed and cast your ballot for change on March 5, 2013. http://www.facebook.com/WhoOwnsWeho?ref=ts&fref=ts
me February 17, 2013 at 07:45 PM
SHOCKING!!!....when you see it all on one page like this.....yes, WHO owns weho is a good question!!!....can you say {{{{{{{ D-E-V-E-L-O-P-E-R-S }}}}}}} boys and girls???....the city is clearly for sale and our city council members are selling it all off one block at a time.....who wants to live in a concrete jungle of buildings 6 or more stories up creating a dark tunnel along santa monica blvd, sunset blvd and la brea ave????.....not to mention the insane gridlock of cars on all streets in every direction....do the RESIDENTS really want a Mini- Manhattan???...ohhhh yes, that's right, the city doesn't ASK its residents want they want.....they just ramrod their developer friends projects down our throats....thankfully, a lot of people are starting to fight back against this insanity.......join the fight now people, once the deal is done, there's nothing you can do but choke on the mess the council has created.....GREAT JOB putting this page together folks!!!

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