Leave It to the Republican to Ask the Tough Questions About Term Limits

In order for his proposal to extend term limits to become law, Michael Bloomberg needs the support of 26 members of the City Council. At the moment, only 14 members are on record saying they will vote in favor of the bill. Five of the undecideds—Alan Gerson, Jessica Lappin, James Oddo, Helen Sears, and Peter Vallone Jr.—have been participating in this week’s marathon term-limits hearings at City Hall.

Most of them claim to be hesitant to support the bill out of concern about the legal principle involved, although it seems more likely than not that the bill could stand up to legal challenges.

Lappin asked at least two witnesses whether the Council has overridden a ballot referendum in the past (term limits were approved in two referendums in the 1990s) and once asked about the history of term-limits legislation in the Council.

Vallone and Gerson repeatedly expressed regret that they cannot put the issue on a general-election ballot because the deadline to do so for this November has passed. Without that option, they focused on the question of whether there is an inherent conflict of interest in the Council voting on legislation that will benefit most if its members. (The city Conflicts of Interest board ruled this week that Council members could vote on the legislation).

Despite the questions, it still seems likely that these members will eventually support the legislation. Gerson put his "conflict of interest" question to the pro-legislation former speaker of Council, Peter Vallone Sr. and mentioned that he’s been fretting about the cost of a referendum.

Interestingly, the clearest-cut and least technical challenges to the administration’s proposal came from Republican Councilman James Oddo.

When the administration asserted that a special election was undemocratic and would allow certain parties to have disproportionate influence—a nervy assertion, given the mayor’s propensity to spend tens of millions of dollars in the cause of his own campaigns—Oddo pressed corporation counsel Michael Cardozo specify what parties have disproportionate influence, and how.

"What do they bring to the table that allows them to have a disproportionate voice?” he demanded. “Who are they?"

Cardozo never answered directly.

It seemed at times as if Oddo was alone in seeking to ask tough questions, rather than simply putting possible future objections on the record before casting an aye vote.