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BLOG: Term Limits Have Been Around as Long as There Have Been Democracies

Term limits help curb tyranny and avoid abuses of power. Term limits keep elected officials accountable to the public.

They were the cornerstone of Athenian democracy. In the days of the Republic, Romans were vigilant about attempts to undermine them. George Washington believed in them.

So why is it that the defenders of the status quo are always complaining that term limits are “undemocratic?” If you like an incumbent and their politics, why should you be limited to the number of times you can vote for that person?

Term limits are a necessary limit on unfettered “choice.” From the earliest days of democracy, it became apparent that there were those who would exploit opportunities to hold power and then never relinquish it. Indeed fears of tyranny were among the reasons the Greeks and Romans were so adamant in including strict term limits on elected office holders.

The democratic ideal was that of selfless service. You served because it was a duty and an honor. The idea of holding power in and of itself was always considered antithetical to the concept of democracy. The notion of Cincinnatus returning to his plow after saving the Roman Republic was one of the democratic legends that inspired our own Founding Fathers.   

George Washington was disappointed that the Constitutional Convention did not put limits on the terms of the new Republic’s executive. He set an example of serving only two terms, a tradition which lasted without the need to be enshrined in law for nearly one hundred and fifty years.

If you don’t think term limits are necessary to avoid abuses of power, just ask anyone from Egypt, Belarus, North Korea or a host of African nations. Even the Chinese Communists instituted a single ten-year term for their chief executive, wanting to avoid another Mao Tse-tung. 

The opponents of term limits always tout the need for stability and continuity. Certainly any incumbent would subscribe to that. But long-term incumbency leads to smug and non-responsive government and discourages public discourse and participation, symptoms of political malaise that we see here in West Hollywood. When buffered from serious electoral challenges, government tends to become insular and unaccountable. The ability to immunize themselves from public scrutiny fosters a culture where corruption can and will flourish. 

As we are seeing in our own town, long-term incumbents are more reliant upon the support from big developers than they are upon the residents. Certainly they are more responsive to the needs of developers than the concerns about our residential quality of life.

We are constantly lectured by condescending incumbents that without large-scale development, West Hollywood cannot sustain our level of social services and law enforcement. Well if that is true, that means that the government we have created is not sustainable. What happens when you run out of space? 

Indeed, even while shedding alligator tears for the lost of rent-controlled housing, they refuse to repeal the City’s existing policies that currently encourage the demolition of such housing for luxury condos. Luxury condos generate more property taxes and bring in folks less demanding of City services. While our long-term incumbents may have a vision for West Hollywood, many of us are not going to be a part of that future if City refuses to protect our stock of existing affordable housing. 

The lack of vision in regard to housing was vividly brought into focus during the recent controversial vote on the El Mirador, a culturally designated apartment building at Sweetzer and Fountain. After evicting the tenants, the Council granted the owner the right to convert the historic building to a hotel. But even the Council members who opposed the conversion offered no alternatives that would discourage or prevent further evictions for similarly situated tenants. The fact is that the longest serving and most experienced Council members clearly have no plans or political will to stop such conversions demonstrates that the benefits of not having term limits are largely illusory.

With the exception of John D’Amico, the current City Council rabidly oppose term limits claiming that they are “undemocratic” in that they deny the public the benefit of their right to serve for life. Apparently their vision of West Hollywood is to have a City Council of 80-year olds dominating the democratic process. 

If our current Council is respectful of the democratic process, why would they build an ostentatious Council Chambers with a capacity of only half of their former meeting place? Why would they fire the original consultant for the General Plan who faithfully reported the residents’ opposition to five- and six-story buildings along Santa Monica Boulevard? 

If our public servants cared so much for public participation, why would Council member Duran announce during a recent meeting that he ignores the testimony of people attending the meeting because he “knows” the pulse of the community?

While the Council majority sanctimoniously pretends to be defenders of the democracy in West Hollywood, our recent history proves otherwise.

When a position on City Council became vacant, the remaining members quickly declared that the City could not “afford” the luxury of having a special election. Instead they would appoint someone to file the uncompleted term of Sal Guarriello.

Although many people in the community urged the Council to appoint someone who would serve as an interim member and promise not to run for election, the City Council instead skipped over at least a dozen experienced applicants to appoint someone who had only lived in the City eighteen months. 

It was pretty clear to most people that Lindsey Horvath’s only real credential was the she was a good friend of Abbe Land and would be a compliant member of the Heilman/Land clique. Obviously the long-term incumbents were not concerned about putting someone with any knowledge or experience with the City, the very traits they claim are so important to keeping them in office.

Such hypocrisy was obvious to most observers. Part of John D’Amico’s popularity as a candidate was his promise to only serve two terms. If residents were so unconcerned about political longevity on the Council, D’Amico would have not made the issue part of his campaign platform.

While the City Council felt that the cost of holding an election to fill the Council vacancy was too high, clearly the residents of West Hollywood are paying a high price for Council members who feel that they have a duty to serve for life. 

So if you see a volunteer with a petition to put term limits on the ballot next March, stop and at least debate the issue with them. You can check out the term limits campaign on WeHoTermLimits.com.  A little help to gather signatures to qualify for the March ballot would be appreciated. You can help create a better future for West Hollywood.

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.

michael September 03, 2012 at 09:08 PM
Chloe, Your kind, calm, and intelligent response to me says it all. Thank you.
Chloe Ross September 03, 2012 at 09:37 PM
The other day I asked a neighbor of mine (about 30 with wife and kid - Iowa born) about the 2012 race and he asked me who was president now and wasn't the guy from the Middle East or something. Why would I imagine a different, smarter, engaged answer on the city of WeHo? And I knew all the answers to these types of questions at 20 and 30 = on and on. Michael - you're welcome.
michael September 03, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Suggested reading, is Carl Cronin's brilliant blog on "Term Limits", currently in wehonews.com
Chloe Ross September 03, 2012 at 11:12 PM
thanks
GoodGriefCharlieBrown September 04, 2012 at 04:38 AM
Touche' mon amie!

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