A coalition of Oakland residents is pushing for an initiative that would impose term limits on the city council. Under the proposal, councilmembers could serve up to three four-year terms and then would be forced to step down, which proponents say would help add new voices to the city council and thus improve policy making on crime, budget deficit and other pressing issues in the city. Move Oakland Forward, a committee formed by academics, community leaders and residents, filed their proposed initiative with the city attorney’s office two weeks ago as the first step towards getting it on the November 2012 ballot.
“Our city is in urgent need of fresh ideas and new people,” said Bruce Nye, board chair of Make Oakland Better Now, one of the organizations involved with the initiative. “Some of the councilmembers have been there for a really long time. You tend to lose that fresh thinking when you’ve been in office for 20-plus years.”
Nye said this is the first citizen-driven attempt to implement term limits in Oakland. While Oakland’s city charter currently states that city councilmembers are elected to four-year terms, it doesn’t include a specific number of times they can run for re-election. Term rules are different for the city mayor; the charter establishes that no person can be elected to serve as mayor for more than two consecutive terms.
“If the mayor has term limits, it’s only logical that councilmembers have them, too,” said Joe Tuman, a member of Make Oakland Better Now, who came in fourth during the 2010 Oakland mayoral election, during which he competed with then-councilmember Jean Quan and current at-large councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.
Tuman said councilmembers who have been in office for a long time fail to make new proposals to resolve Oakland’s ongoing issues. “There’s a resistance to innovative solutions to crime, housing, unemployment—a whole range of problems,” he said. “New people bring new ideas. It’s not a young person-old person thing, it’s a new person in office in comparison with a person that has been there for too long.”
Half of the current councilmembers have been in office for more than a decade. Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente (District 5) has served for 19 years, or five terms on Oakland City Council, the longest of the eight sitting councilmembers. Jane Brunner (District 1) and Nancy Nadel (District 3) have each served for 15 years, or four terms. Larry Reid (District 7) has been in office for 14 years.
Councilmembers De La Fuente, Brunner, Nadel and Reid did not return interview requests from Oakland North.
The proponents of term limits argue that sitting councilmembers who have been in office for a long time have great advantages during election seasons. “It’s practically impossible to unseat a councilmember,” Tuman said. “The incumbency advantage is huge. They have all the resources in office to be in touch with voters and they don’t have to pay for them. They get more and bigger contributions during elections, because those who make contributions assume they are going to win.”
If the proposed initiative were approved by voters in November 2012, councilmembers currently in office would be able to complete their terms and serve three more, if re-elected. “California court decisions state that you can’t shut somebody down retroactively,” said Nye. “This is not an attempt to throw incumbents out. This is a long-term solution.”
Term limits have long been a contentious issue within California. Each government jurisdiction has specific rules about term duration and the number of permitted reelections. In the California state government, assemblymembers can be elected only three times to serve two-year terms. The governor and senators cannot remain in office more than two four-year terms.
Of 481 cities in California, 95 have term limits for city councilmembers or equivalent officials, according to a report compiled this summer by the city clerk’s staff in Lompoc, when that city’s officials were discussing the possibility of implementing term limits for the city’s mayor and councilmembers.
According to U.S. Term Limits, an organization that advocates for similar measures at the state and local levels, eight of the 10 most populated cities in the U.S. have term limits for their legislative branch of government.
For U.S. Term Limits president Philip Blumel, term limits are part of the democratic process. “Our Founding Fathers said rotation of office is critical for democracy to operate,” he said. Blumel said term limits make elections more competitive. “Incumbents rarely attract quality challengers or any challengers at all. If you have term limits, you have higher-quality opponents, because they know they have a chance to win,” he said.
“When you have rotation in the government, you will have a lot of former officials running around. You will have more people with great knowledge on how the local government works,” Blumel added. “This is what John Adams called ‘university in rotation.’”
But other experts say that term limits are not always beneficial. “They are not universally good,” said Susan Rasky, a political reporting professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a former congressional correspondent for The New York Times. “On one hand, they do help shake things up, but you run the risk that the only permanent people left in the building are lobbyists and staff members. So you don’t only lose expertise, you also lose institutional memory.”
Rasky said legislators facing term limits might not have enough time to push for big or complex policy changes or support their peers’ proposed legislation. “Your colleagues might be into a certain policy, but you can convince them to support you if you support them in other issues,” she said. “It’s is a good thing, to meet halfway. With term limits you probably won’t be in office long enough to return the favor.”
A researcher from the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), a Los Angeles-based political research organization, has studied other negative consequences of term limits. In a July, 2011, report titled “Citizen Legislators or Political Musical Chairs? Term Limits in California,” CGS health policy project manager Ava Alexandar concluded that term limits for California assemblymembers, which were established in 1990, have not accomplished their purpose of providing opportunities for more citizens, with no government experience, to participate in the legislative branch. According to the report, in 1990, 28 percent of assemblymembers had served as local government officials before being elected. That percentage increased to 70 percent in 2008, after 18 years of established term limits, and was at 68 percent in 2010.
Alexandar wrote in her report that termed-out state officials are now being replaced with city officials, rather than with citizens with no government experience. “Instead, the state has witnessed an enhanced form of political musical chairs,” her report concluded. “Indeed, politicians are now moving faster and faster to the music, shifting their political offices to keep up with the pace of politics in California’s post term limits world and continue to serve in public office.”
Term limits can also affect the government’s budget, said Edward J. Lopez, a public policy professor at San Jose State University. Lopez said that recent studies show legislators in areas that have term limits “have increased spending significantly. The law of unintended consequences has played out because legislators are careerists, and term limitation puts them in the position to need to spend–and spend now–in order to advance their careers as politicians.”
Lopez said Oakland voters should look for solutions to improve political competiveness, instead of pushing for term limits. “By reducing ballot access requirements, leveling the playing field to third parties, and freeing up campaign finance restrictions, the putative advantages that term limits are supposed to achieve will come about,” he said.
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego and co-author of the book Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism, said it’s hard to predict what will happen if term limits are established for Oakland’s city council. “Most academic studies have been conducted at state governments—there’s not much data of term limits at local levels,” he said. “It’s also really hard to notice improvements in legislature after term limits—that’s really hard to measure.”
Kousser said many people argue term limits are not necessary, as people have the option of voting incumbents out of office if they are doing a bad job, but he said he disagrees with this argument. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “Incumbent councilmembers have a lot of influence and power to bring resources to their districts. If a district votes for someone new, they lose those resources, while other districts don’t. Term limits are a way of binding these districts and creating equal benefits for all of them.”
In Oakland, the proposed initiative began as part of a research project on term limits in California at the state and local levels conducted by the Organizing and Leadership Academy (TOLA), an Oakland-based organization that develops research and training programs on community activism. This summer, members of TOLA, conducted a survey in Oakland to measure the public interest in term limits for councilmembers. The researchers interviewed 400 registered voters this August. “We tried to include the general demographics of Oakland: gender, age, ethnicity, all backgrounds,” said Amanda Clifford, TOLA’s term limits project leader.
According to their results, 74 percent of interviewed residents were in favor of implementing term limits for city councilmembers. “Our results were a bit stronger that other polls conducted in 2010,” said TOLA fellow Boris Bindman. “We have to take margin of error into account, but there’s still an overwhelming support for having some form of term limits in Oakland.”
After obtaining these results, TOLA fellows drafted an initiative to establish three four-years terms for councilmembers. They presented the proposal to Make Oakland Better Now! Both organizations formed a committee, Move Oakland Forward, to try to put an initiative on the 2012 ballot.
On September 19, Move Oakland Forward members filed their petition proposing their measure for the ballot, and City Attorney Barbara Parker has up to 30 days to review and respond to the petition. If Parker approves it, the committee would have to gather signatures from 15 percent of the city’s registered voters before the proposal could be added to the ballot. Its proponents will have 180 days to complete the task.
TOLA project leader Amanda Clifford said Move Oakland Forward members plan to gather 40,000 signatures. “That’s a lot of signatures,” she said. “But we want to make sure we complete the required percentage. There’s always an error margin, people sometimes sign and they forget they are not registered to vote. Those things happen.”
The committee plans to hold a kickoff party on October 29 the petition to residents. TOLA fellow Boris Bindman said he hopes the event will encourage people to volunteer for the signature gathering. “Term Limits may not be the coolest thing, but when people participate, become active in a process that affects Oakland, that drives others to their involvement,” he said.
Philip Blumel, of the U.S. Term Limits organization, said he would support the Move Oakland Forward proposal, but suggested reducing the number of terms councilmembers will be allowed to serve if it passes. “Twelve years is too much time. There will not be enough rotations,” he said. “An eight-year limit has proven to be very successful in most governments. But if I were from Oakland I would probably vote for it—it’s better than no term limits at all.”