BLOG: Term Limit Fallacies

One wit recently put a darkly humorous spin on John Heilman’s mantra on term limits, irreverently quipping, “We have term limits, it's called death.”

Even if term limits pass, most of the current members will wind up serving more than 30 years and retire as they approach 70. Without term limits, maybe they will be around until their 90s.

The defenders of the status quo have come up with all sorts of reasons why we need to maintain the current lifetime reigns of the incumbents, but most of those reasons are fairly specious. The notion of limiting incumbents to 12 years in office is apparently very threatening to City Hall.

Sometimes you just need to shake up the status quo. Historically, term limits have empowered the disempowered, providing access to women and ethnic minorities who generally could not find a place at the table. But in California, no one group benefited from term limits as much as the gay community.

Like other activists, I had first hand experience how difficult it was to move the LGBT agenda even when California’s legislature was dominated by “progressive” Democrats. But as President of the Stonewall Democratic Club in the early 90s, I witnessed first hand a transformation of the political landscape once term limits took affect. Los Angeles Council member Jackie Goldberg came out and successfully ran for State Assembly. She was quickly followed by Sheila Kuehl in West L.A. and Chris Kehoe from San Diego.

Having openly lesbian and gay members of the legislature transformed the political process in California. Change happened exponentially. We went from fighting for a bare-bones domestic-partnership bill to gay marriage in just over a decade. Rights that we thought we may not see in our lifetime were suddenly within reach.

So if term limits are so bad, why have they been so good for the gay community? While California’s legislative term limits are absurdly short and have exacerbated rather than solved many problems facing the State, they have undoubtedly succeeded in bring new and diverse voices into government. 

In the current debate over West Hollywood term limits, the opponents often claim that term limits are “undemocratic.” The most succinct response I have heard to that canard was from a young man living on Westmount, “Term limits are democratic if we vote for them.” After all, how democratic is a system where our local elected officials are kept in office by tens of thousands of dollars in developer money?

I don’t see anything particularly “democratic” about the fact that the majority of our Council members appear to be indebted to deep-pocketed developers who appear to be far more influential in determining land-use policy than the general public. Having two Senators for each State may not seem like a good deal for California residents, but no one is saying that the U.S. Constitution is “undemocratic.”

Another concern we hear from defenders of the status quo is that people like our “progressive” City Council and that somehow term limits might change our City’s political orientation.

As someone who was here before we incorporated as a City, I can attest that West Hollywood was a progressive City long before we had a City Council. Our Council is progressive because our people are open minded and progressive, not the other way around. Indeed on issues such as support of same-gender marriage and opposing the war in Iraq, the residents of West Hollywood lead the City Council rather than the other way around. Just because the incumbent members of City Council currently support same-gender marriage does not mean that five new Council members would not be equally as committed to our community values.

Probably the most ridiculous argument against term limits for West Hollywood is that our Council members are irreplaceable. Some folks have expressed concern that some of the candidates who have run for City Council are simply not qualified. While I try not to take that personally, the fact is that the longevity of the current City Council members has discouraged qualified potential challengers from running. Indeed the current City Council has been remarkably reluctant to mentor potential replacements.

But there are numerous qualified potential City Council members out there. Lauren Meister, the past president of West Hollywood West, comes to mind. Sam Borelli, a long time Public Safety Commissioner, has mused about running and certainly has the experience and leadership ability to serve. Longtime Planning Commissioner John Altschul has been mentioned as a potential Council member while Transportation Commissioner Scott Schmidt has demonstrated an impressive grasp of civic issues.

Most observers were appalled to see in May 2009 that when the City Council deliberated over a successor to fill the vacancy left by the late Sal Guarriello, that novice Lindsay Horvath was selected over experienced Planning Commissioner and EQCA board member Joe Guardarrama, who was clearly qualified and ready to serve. Obviously there are plenty of locals that have the talent and dedication to serve. It was certainly telling that John D’Amico’s name was never raised by the Council members during those deliberations.

But most of these potential candidates won’t go up against well funded incumbents and often many of the people who work up the nerve to challenge the incumbents are perhaps not familiar faces or those with the most experience. But at least they have the moxie to believe they can change West Hollywood for the better.

If we had term limits, West Hollywood would have the opportunity to more fully utilize all of the talent and enthusiasm that exists within our community.

Indeed for all the talk about term limits being “undemocratic,” what about the City Council’s decision to appoint Lindsay Horvath rather than hold a special election? During that discussion, not one of the City Council members talked about holding a special election to fill that vacancy. They were all very pious about saving the City the “huge” expense of conducting an election that might be won by someone other than a City Hall insider.

The cost of a special election is relatively cheap compared to many of the City Council’s pet expenditures. Kathy Fong of Common Cause pointed out that the City could have held an election solely by mail that would have cost $60,000, less than the amount we are currently spending on the “rainbow” crosswalks at Santa Monica and San Vicente. But our City Council was apparently distrustful of the results of a special election. Far better to deny citizens the right to elect their own leaders and appoint one of your reliable friends. 

So when you hear our City Council members sanctimoniously claiming that term limits are “undemocratic,” ask why appointing someone who lived in the City only 18 months was somehow “democratic.” Apparently, they are only concerned about “democracy” when it impacts their political careers. After the Horvath fiasco, it is apparent that four of our City Council members could care less about democracy.

While the current long-serving incumbents were certainly originally well meaning, anyone who has been to a City Council meeting can see that the Council suffers from a malaise that arises from incumbents who have long passed their original shelf life.

While many people fear that term limits will bring adverse change, we are already witnessing changes in our community that are not for the better. We have a disconnected City Hall that is far more concerned about maximizing development rather than protecting our quality of life. While we have a monumental library, crime is on the rise, our streets are nearing gridlock and many long-term residents have seen their apartments demolished to make way for luxury condos. The urban village we once were is in danger of simply becoming indistinguishable for the rest of the over built Westside.

Today, being on City Council is more about planning runs for the State legislature, leveraging your elected positions into lucrative government jobs or fund raising for your favorite non-profit, which in at least one case happens to be their employer. Indeed one City Council member recently told the Los Angeles Times that he had such a busy schedule that he had no time to review the bi-weekly City Council agenda with his deputy except over lunch, which would ideally be charged to a City credit card. The current sense of entitlement by the incumbents makes a mockery of the notion of selfless public service.

Change is happening in our small town, whether we like it or not. But with a City Council that is intellectually stagnant, self congratulatory and non-responsive to the public, most of that change will not be for the better. Entrenched incumbents have put a stranglehold on the market place of ideas. Compliancy has replaced competency.

Enacting term limits will at least start a process of renewal and hope for a better tomorrow. After all, progressive and creative West Hollywood is defined by its people, not its incumbents.

To volunteer or for more information, contact wehotermlimits.com.

Steve Martin


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.

scott ferguson September 12, 2012 at 11:42 PM
The elephant in the room again is this - despite so much of this blog being a repetition of allegations of bad things being done in the city, this proposed referendum won't have any impact until after at least 6 more elections. Your point about Lindsay Horvath pure and simple disproves your thesis - people weren't impressed about her qualifications, and she was defeated. That should be obvious to anyone not blinded by the false promise of term limits. And again your own defeat as a council members proves that when city residents don't like one's performance, they will vote him and her out. So again, you yourself serve as proof that term limits aren't needed. Petition signing must be going awfully slowly. What is this, the 20th pro-term limit blog here? Are there really no other issues of interest in this city?
Mike Dolan September 13, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Right-on Scott. I Feel like this is the "birtherism of Weho. Honestly, I voted Steve Martin out of office along with many others. I also voted Lindsay Horvath out. Voting works! I do believe it is time for some changes on the council but I will vote them out even-though I supported them in the past. Term limits are not the answer.
me September 13, 2012 at 05:45 AM
Blah, blah, blah....you've run on and on SO much here on the patch so many times that it's really hard to even see if you have any thought-provoking message
me September 13, 2012 at 05:49 AM
click on mike dolan's name and you can see she has only commented on this subject.....thus, one really must wonder if mike, scott (and oh, whats the other name you go by?) are one in the same....
Darrell September 13, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Steve, I always look forward to reading anything you write. Keep it up!
Cathy September 13, 2012 at 04:11 PM
Steve, thank you for keeping on this subject. There seems to be no limits to the negativity about this. I just do not understand why there is such animosity. Agree or disagree but honestly, can't people just take you at your word? If one does not want to sign the petition, then don't. Personally, I could not agree with you more about where our city is heading. I do live on the soon to be grossly over developed East side. I quite frankly am fearful of the future, my future here in what I thought was always going to be an urban village. There are some on this council whose vision for this side of town seems to be dominated by development, and developers. I am not against developing the east side, but I am adamantly opposed to the heights of these developments. Santa Monica Blvd. historic route 66 between La Brea and Fairfax is not Wilshire Blvd. Traffic since the Gateway (which by the way is now a crime ridden area) was built has exploded. Now, with the 2 Monarch projects on La Brea and Santa Monica and La Brea and Fountain, and the imminent 2 ten story, towers slated for Movietown Plaza (an estimated addition of over 750 apartments), I cannot imagine what life will be like here. I am just saying that this council has a vision for our city that does not necessarily meet their motto, "Your City, Your Vision", it actually should read, "Your City, OUR Vision".
scott ferguson September 13, 2012 at 04:30 PM
And once again Cathy, you list a bunch of what you say are current problems that won't be addressed by this idea if it passes. It won't have any impact until after six more council elections. What will term limits do to affect these? As far as the "animosity." Let's be clear about what is going on. One side (yours) is the one with animosity, non-stop against the current council. Fine - that's your right, nothing wrong with it. But be honest- that's where the animosity here starts. Then when a few of us challenge your opinions, respectfully, with counterarguments, your side (most of you) turn your animosity toward us. The anger about people having opinions different from your side is constant, the personal attacks regular. It doesn't come from those against term limits - it comes 100% from those who favor it. So spare us the concerns about negativity and animosity - both in terms of feelings about the city and the council members, and about the debate here, it is your allies who exhibit those attributes. As far as my passion on term limits, it comes from three things - my support of our system of representative government, my detesting of the referenda system based on how it has destroyed California politics and government, and my fear that term limits are part of a greater plan that will turn our city government over to amateurs with little experience and a bad agenda for the city I love.
scott ferguson September 13, 2012 at 04:44 PM
One other thing about animosity - that is at root what the term limits drive is about. It is about animus (I suspect as much as anything personal more than political or ideological) against the current council. It is the natural outgrowth of all the hateful things said here and elsewhere about members, and frustration about not being able to beat them fair and square in election. Thus, out of animus, you want to change the rules of the game. Again Cathy, I don't question the sincerity of your concerns, and don't know about their validity - you likely have legitimate concerns. But again, how does changing election laws in 2025 going to address your current concerns? It makes no sense to me, except that this whole drive is one big "gotcha" moment meant to fulfill some unresolved animus against the current council. It would be nice if someone from your side addressed the disconnect between this drive and what are supposed to be critical immediate issues. It just reinforces the sense that this is personal, not politically constructive, movement.
Rudolf Martin September 13, 2012 at 05:29 PM
"scott", you can be very rational at times. this is not one of them. i'm tired of the argument that this is a "gotcha" movement or a secret power grab. that does not make any sense as you point out yourself? so why assign these petty motives to those you disagree with over and over? allow me to quote j.w.goethe: "we only see what we know". and your argument that term limits do not address our concerns for another 12 years is pointing out the obvious. you do not share the same concerns anyways. so what? neither do they cure cancer. you have legitimate concerns about term limits which you have laid out here many times. so why resort to projecting anger on other people again?
CHR September 13, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Have we not learned what Term Limits do? Theft don't create better government, they create q climate of ship jumping. Since tern limits have found their way to the CA legislature, statewide offices and many city councils, all that has happened is that people are leaving posts early to run for other seats to secure the Iraq next job. Cities, counters, and the state have spent millions of dollars on special elections replacing them. Furthermore, we continue to bring in full crops of rookie electeds all at the same time, leaving rhetoric cities and State to be run by unelected deputies and not the people we elected. By the time the people we elect get up to speed and are at the height of being able to do he most good, they are termed out. Experience matters. Elections = Term Limits
CHR September 13, 2012 at 05:33 PM
Sorry about he few typos, Damn phone.
scott ferguson September 13, 2012 at 05:35 PM
I am only describing accurately what is often posted by many (not you) who oppose the current council. The attacks are often personal and venomous. And of course that is often the course reaction to my counterarguments take. When someone decries the animus in these threads while not recognizing where it comes from (almost entirely those who favor term limits), it needs to be pointed out. Where I come from "animus" is not defined as posting opinions, respectfully, that are different from one's own, even if done forcefully (i.e. with facts) and repeatedly (which makes me no different from those like Steve Martin who now has authored maybe 7 term limits blogs so far). The assigning of "petty motives" comes from a fair reason of much of what is written. Many are sincere and coming from a different place, but petty motives also clearly is a big part.
me September 13, 2012 at 06:49 PM
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah......wish you knew how to say more with fewer words and leave yur heavy emotion out of it.......yur quite the broken record
me September 13, 2012 at 06:52 PM
weird, i wonder how many patch accounts one person can create.....scott?
scott ferguson September 13, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Me: Happy to give permission to anyone at WeHoPatch to check URLs and get back and confirm that I post here under only one name. I have no idea who the other two are. And for all I know, you are just as likely someone else here as well. As for the short version, because I like to honor requests from my fellow posters, as you asked: Term limits are almost universally initiated by people who have lost elections and want to rig the rules so they don't lose so much, irrespective of how anti-democratic they are and how they deny citizens the opportunity to keep successful elected officials in office. And it's a "gotcha" moment because by all accounts the leaders of the movement come from those who have been involved in losing campaigns and, despite their constant warnings of imminent disaster in WeHo, are spending their time on a (for now) meaningless movement that will have no impact on the next six council elections. Thanks for asking, and you don't have to thank me in return.
me September 13, 2012 at 11:07 PM
thanks, i won't


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something