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.