Term limits have their limitations | Bob Roegner
By BOB ROEGNER
Federal Way Mirror Inside Politics
May 9, 2011 · Updated 7:04 PM
Last fall and again more recently, a group of individuals has been advocating term limits for the mayor and city council here in Federal Way.
More accurately, they have been asking the council to reduce the time frame for circulating a petition and reduce the number of signatures required to place an initiative on the ballot. They point out the local requirements are more strict than the state.
In earlier conversations, they suggested limits set at three terms or 12 years for council members. Some in the group would also like term limits to be retroactive. If the council lowered the threshold and the group was able to convince the voters to pass the issue, it would effectively bar four of the seven city council members from running again — and eliminate a fifth one in four years.
I have not heard them push the retroactive portion lately, only the need to change the rules to make it easier to put an initiative on the ballot. However, if the council agrees to change the rules, they can circulate any proposal they want.
The group seems to be made up primarily of those who were involved in the campaign to change from a council-manager to the mayor-council form of government. Since only one member of the council appears to favor the change, it does not appear that there are four council votes to change the requirement.
Managing a city is a complex responsibility. While most council members are unlikely to admit it, it takes three to four years just to understand the laws, terminology, intergovernmental relationships and how to actually structure decision making. It’s not as easy as many people would like to think. Experience and institutional memory make a difference.
An ideal council would have a blend of different levels of seasoning to ensure that you have a combination of both new and experienced points of view. Two council members would have two to four years of experience, two would have four to eight years of experience and three would have 10 or more years of experience. More experience among council members reduces the likelihood of reactive or political votes. Although admittedly, it doesn’t eliminate them. That is not dissimilar to the current council members.
Roger Freeman has two years on the council, Dini Duclos has almost four years, Jim Ferrell has almost eight years and Jack Dovey has almost nine years in his current service, although Dovey served on the council earlier. Mike Park, Jeanne Burbidge and Linda Kochmar have more than 10 years of experience.
What would happen if the term limits passed and four council members couldn’t run for re-election, and a fifth was only allowed four more years?
Four options. The remaining council members would dominate the new ones. The power would shift disproportionately to the mayor and the city staff. Special interest groups would dominate everybody. Or chaos. The public wouldn’t necessarily see it, but power vacuums always get filled by someone.
Is occasional change healthy? Of course it is. But artificially eliminating good elected officials doesn’t always lead to better government.
There’s a reason that very few cities have term limitations. And it’s not just to protect the incumbents. Too much change too fast can have negative consequences, such as inexperienced people making decisions beyond their knowledge base. Also, if you think a council member is doing a good job, wouldn’t you prefer the option of voting for that person again? The council probably won’t change the initiative requirements — and shouldn’t.
One advocate for change said “it’s too hard to beat an incumbent.” That’s true. It happened recently, and it could happen again. But that shouldn’t be an excuse. We have elections for a reason.
Another advocate for change said: “It’s the same old council. Nothing changes.” That’s not accurate. It wasn’t that long ago that Mary Gates, Dean McColgan and Eric Faison all served on the council.
If you don’t like what is happening, or you think you could do better, then get involved. Run for office or support a candidate. But don’t take the easy way out by signing a petition to change your government or by supporting a lowering of the standards just because it’s easier.