Term Limits: The Heart of Democracy

A Santa Monica City Councilmember and the leader of Santa Monica’s Transparency project are circulating a petition to put the brakes on perennial City Council members. The initiative proposed by Sue Himmelrich and Mary Marlow holds the ability to be transformative in a city that rarely sees new faces on its City Council. The Santa Monica City Council has refused to limit how long a council member can hold office, and it often appears that members of that august body are “homesteading” their city council seats.

Santa Monica City Council limited the amount of time that their appointed commissioners and board members can serve in their voluntary roles (three four-year terms) in 2013. However, they have failed to adopt the same rules for their tenure. Once elected, the power of incumbency trumps all challengers who wish to serve, by letting those who are in office remain in office perpetually. That’s why thirty-six states have limits on the amount of time an elected official can serve in a single office. In California, term limits exist for all principal statewide offices. In our area, Culver City, West Hollywood, and Malibu are among those who limit the amount of time council members can be in office.

Why not Santa Monica? Term limits have existed since the ancient councils in Athens and Sparta. According to historian Garrett Fagan, office holding in the Roman Republic was based on “limited tenure of office” which ensured that “authority circulated frequently,” helping to prevent corruption. From antiquity to the early American Republic our leaders felt that the rotation of power was essential. George Mason wrote, “nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation.” Mercy Otis Warren, a female political writer during the American Revolution, warned that the Constitution did not provide “for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by little well-timed bribery, will probably be done.”

A SMa.r.t. look at history suggests that term limits are reasonable and essential for an influx of new ideas into government. While many in Santa Monica argued for two four-year terms as the maximum an elected official should serve, the makers of the initiative petition now circulating throughout our city wisely chose a maximum of three four-year terms. The initiative matches the term limits mandated in the City of Los Angeles for their council members. It allows the women and men elected to navigate the halls of government and become competent lawmakers. It does not allow them to become thoroughly entrenched in their positions. Limiting the time an official can serve is a “mechanism in place to bring fresh perspectives and new energy to the council,” said Lauren Meister, a West Hollywood resident who helped spearhead WeHo’s term limits campaign. “It opens the door to broader public participation in the legislative process in our city, which benefits everyone,” Meister said in a statement.

The prime opposition to Himmelrich and Marlow’s initiative appears to be the same power brokers who have pulled strings behind the scenes in our city for decades. This group also encompasses those who are currently residing as perennial “homesteaders” in city council chairs. In the past 25 years, only two incumbents have been voted out of office in the City by the Bay. It appears that the only way an incumbent can lose a seat in Santa Monica is by retiring or passing away while in office. That’s wrong. The same entrenched ideas and positions lead to stagnant government and an eventual loss of innovation. Also, the outcries against the potential for a corrupt government become louder as the same people reside in office and refuse to give way to the fresh viewpoints of new candidates. Yes, money is also a culprit in Santa Monica elections. $200,000 is now the norm for financing a municipal campaign, and that issue needs to be dealt with as well. However, we need to take steps to “Febreeze,” the city council and the term limits initiative is the first of several vital steps that will lead to better governance by the people and for the people in the City of Santa Monica.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)