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Time to terminate term limits

I thought term limits were a bad idea when I first heard about them in the 1990s. It always seemed to me that everything you might reasonably hope to achieve with term limits you could get instead by some kind of campaign finance reform measures aimed at narrowing the financial gap between incumbents and potential challengers, without taking away the people’s right to re-elect someone they approve of and want to keep in office. Houston was caught up in this trend in the mid-90s, with three two-year terms imposed as the maximum a city officeholder could serve for that office. Every now and then someone makes noise about changing that law, which is currently a part of the city’s charter, but so far no action has been taken.

So, while I don’t expect anything to happen this time around, I nonetheless wholeheartedly endorse Chris Bell’s column in the Examiner, in which he makes the case for change.

In the early ’90s, most members of the City Council and Mayor Kathy Whitmire had been around for years. The whole “new blood” argument was a big seller and the measure was passed and then strengthened to take away any loopholes.

Now what we have, for all intents and purposes, are six-year terms for all city office holders. An incumbent has not been defeated since 1999. Most incumbents face only token or no opposition regardless of performance. That seems completely counter to the original purpose of clearing out dead weight. Now dead weight is basically ensured a spot until three terms have expired.

Because everyone knows they will be there for only a limited period of time and have very little inherent power to begin with, members of council have been effectively neutered.

The mayor still has to get seven council members to go along with him, but that’s not terribly difficult since the mayor of Houston has extraordinary inherent powers — only New York’s mayor has more — and every road at Houston City Hall leads through the mayor’s office.

It has made “go along to get along” a mandate at City Hall and while that might sometimes be a good thing, other times it’s not.

People should want members of city council to operate with a certain degree of independence and under the current system, that’s strongly discouraged and next to impossible.

Term limits also create a sort of artificial democracy whereby openings are created for city office not because someone is retiring or is doing a bad job and needs to be replaced but because of an arbitrary time limit that folks back in the ’90s decided would make everything better.

At first, it created a lot of interest and enthusiasm but all that has clearly waned. Now, after suffering through one of the most boring elections in the history of man and seeing a lower degree of interest than many thought imaginable, it’s time for term limits to become term limited.

The unelected incumbent was Jean Kelley, who succeeded her husband John in District G, then was ousted by Bert Keller. Since then, going by the City Secretary election archives, I count all of three elections featuring an incumbent in which the incumbent had a real chance of losing:

– In 2001, Bell and Orlando Sanchez forced Mayor Lee Brown into a runoff, where Brown won a close match against Sanchez.

– In 2003, Peter Brown took Council Member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs to a runoff, where she prevailed by a close margin.

– And in 2007, Council Member Sue Lovell won by six points over perennial candidate Griff Griffin.

That last one is basically an accident, as the result had nothing to do with Griff or his campaign. Given that we have ten or eleven races featuring an incumbent each cycle, that’s over fifty such elections from 1999 on, and a total of four among them that could be considered competitive. Whether you like the term limits we have or not, I don’t think you can call that a good thing.

If it were up to me, I’d throw the whole thing out, and finance a pool of money to serve as matching funds for small-dollar donors to candidates. That would incentivize grassroots campaigning, and make it more feasible for a little-guy candidate to make a serious run. If you insist on having some limits, I’d argue for something like six terms, which allows for an officeholder to accomplish something, yet still face the possibility of a strong challenge should he or she prove to be ineffective. Naturally, I don’t expect this to ever happen, but it’s what I’d do anyway if I could. What do you think?

(Crossposted from Kuff’s World.)

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  1. Baby Snooks says:

    What makes you think ending term limits would increase competition and make it easier to remove a corrupt, or simply incompetent, politican from office? All it might do is ensure an even further corrupted City Hall.

    I think some might, however, support “unlimited” terms for the actual district seats. These councilmembers have to answer to a smaller constituency and stand a greater chance of being challenged and removed at the polls instead of by term limits.

    What really needs to be looked at is the influence peddling at City Hall by insiders and lobbyists.

    The mayor and the at-large councilmembers can survive a challenge by merely ensuring the influence peddlers and lobbyists are happy who in turn can produce the “ward heelers” to get out the minority voters and get them to vote for whomever they are told to vote.

    That sounds awfully prejudiced. It is not meant to be. It is merely a reflection of the reality of Houston. Sometimes it works for us actually. Sometimes, however, it works against us.

    The same principle is at work with the Republican Party. Get them all out to the polls and get them all to vote for who you tell them to vote for. The Republicans have given us some of the most corrupt and certainly some of the most incompetent councilmembers. Sometimes they even quietly support a Democrat instead of their own.

    It is important to note that the suggestion to end term limits is coming from a lobbyist.

  2. Charles Hixon says:

    This issue ALWAYS comes up during the last term of the current mayor.

  3. Baby Snooks says:

    The current mayor is a reminder to some of the reason why we have term limits. His attitude with regard to the hirise on Bissonnet was and is a little too much. And was and is a little too revealing about how “insiders” hijack City Hall. Which is why we have term limits. To limit how much they are able to hijack it and for how long.