Term limits: baby steps on the ballot

My husband and I were driving out I-10 Sunday afternoon, and as we passed one of the billboards promoting Mayor Hardberger’s campaign to loosen our restrictive local term limits (currently set at just two, two-year terms apiece for council and hizzoner), he commented on its clever double entendre: “Vote Yes to Extend Term Limits” could be misunderstood as “vote yes to keep term limits in place.” Whatever my reply was, it caused him to ask, somewhat incredulously: “You’re undecided!?”

And it’s true, although I didn’t realize until that moment just how ambivalent I am about the proposal on the November 4 ballot: four two-year terms max for the mayor and council. It’s not that I think our current system — enacted by voters in 1991 — isn’t hobbling government by the people, for the people. In fact, the more the Current digs into ongoing issues at City Hall — from the lack of any real oversight of our publicly owned utility to John Foddrill’s upcoming whistleblower lawsuit — the more apparent it is to me that we need a council that’s skilled and empowered enough to keep an eye on the unelected staff who run our town, and the lobbyists who love them.

But the Mayor’s proposed solution is so half-assed that I worry it’s no solution at all. Given that election seasons grow at only a slightly less invidious rate than holiday seasons (I write this dreading any day now the first sighting of holly and evergreen swag on our sunny fall streets), I suspect that if the measure passes, our council reps will spend 50 percent of that time, or four of their eight years, raising money and glad-handing at neighborhood-association coffee klatches. Alternatively, we could just go ahead and limit them to one four-year term and hope that without a reelection to worry about they might not only focus their full attention on unsexy issues such as dealing with a slew of worrisome CPS lawsuits, but locate that famously elusive set of lame-duck balls.

It’s possible that the 35,000 voters Communities Organized for Public Service claims are committed to extending those limits will join forces with a horde of new voters from cities where elected officials aren’t leashed like ill-behaved dogs and overturn our shortsighted regime, but if the initiative fails — and even if it doesn’t — I’d like to suggest another strategy: salaries.

Currently our elected City reps make $20 per meeting — not to exceed $1,040/year — a sum of money that qualifies them for Haven for Hope’s services. I earned more each month at my first real job: bus girl at the Owatonna Country Club. (I feel compelled to add that while we did party with the bag boys after hours, I don’t think I ever drank on the clock.) But councilperson for a city of 1.25-million people? That’s a full-time job. District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez estimates that he spends 30-50 hours per week on his official duties, including attending A and B sessions and subcommittee meetings. In addition to those hours, he also meets monthly with neighborhood presidents, holds town-hall meetings on subjects such as the City budget, and attends various other citizen functions. He supports his family working as an investment banker — a job he’s fortunate to be able to attend to during weekends and off hours.

Of course, some folks can get away with juggling a job and Council for four years without losing their houses or dropping their credit scores well below the Texas average of 692, but the practical effect of this arrangement is that the only people who can really afford sufficient time off to devote to council business are the independently wealthy, those supported by a spouse, adequately pensioned retirees, and lobbyists in training — lawyers, title agents, and the like, whose firms keep them on the payroll during their City Hall stint figuring that the relationships built and insider knowledge gained is well worth the investment. Excluded from the potential field of candidates are most young to middle-age working folks, especially those with a family to house, feed, and send to college.

Sure, he’d be interested in serving eight years, Rodriguez said (a pie-in-the-sky wish; this ballot initiative excludes current officeholders), but the job is a financial and time strain that would make an additional four years daunting. This, as well as conversations with past council members, makes me think that extending term limits without salaries won’t necessarily raise the overall quality of our city council or its performance — the stated promise of the Mayor’s campaign.

Cautionary types will be quick to point out that Mayor Ed Garza’s failed 2004 attempt to persuade voters to extend council terms to three, three-year stints was matched by a failed pay raise (and a laughably modest one at that: 75 percent of the median SA income for council; 100 percent for the mayor, which would have registered at a less-than-princely 40 grand), but the initiatives were voted down by almost identical margins. Perhaps voters would be willing to consider a pay raise first, with term limits still in place, and if that results in a wider, more appealing field of candidates and winners, they’d be an easier sell for loosening term limits.

As it is, backers of the Mayor’s proposal have to fight from an almost ridiculous position of weakness. On the one hand, the argument is that eight years will give council members the chance to learn their jobs well enough to avoid, say, the digital-billboard giveaway, inadequately researched nuclear fantasies, or the towing-contract hijinks, but in order to woo wafflers, the Mayor promised not to include the current council in the extension. So, we’ll have to start with a fresh crop of naifs in ’09 and ’11. Sure, the proposition on this election’s ballot may be better than nothing: With all due respect to the Homeowner Taxpayer Association, how do you eat a reactionary, faux-populist elephant? One bite at a time. But I’d be a lot more excited if we had the whole beast in our sights.

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