A Time for Stability

The woolly wildness on Wall Street continues. Venerable names have disappeared. Firms that survived the Great Depression are no more. The effects of this restructuring can only be guessed at; no one knows how, or when, it will end. What seems certain is that the changes figure to bring some measure of uncertainty to the world’s financial center, New York City.

It was reassuring to hear from Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city is “well positioned” to deal with Wall Street’s catastrophes. Coming from another politician, the mayor’s optimistic view might have sounded like wishful thinking. But Mr. Bloomberg’s career as a chief executive who built a multibillion-dollar business fusing information and technology gives him credibility. Even more importantly, the mayor has consistently argued for prudent budgeting even in flush times. That prudence has limited New York’s exposure to today’s turmoil and resulted in the highest bond rating in the city’s 400-year history.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by the Bank of America are in many ways the natural result of our free market economy. Finance is a high-risk, high-reward business. The people who worked at Lehman Brothers still retain their skills in finance and will be sought out by other firms; a good number will probably start their own ventures. As a result, the loss of jobs from Lehman Brothers will not necessarily create a surge in unemployment. Yes, it will produce significant losses in household assets and a reduction in savings and pension accounts, but the city’s economy may very well absorb most of these people, from the executive assistants to the bankers. And while Bank of America—which will benefit from Merrill Lynch’s remarkable talent pool—is based in Charlotte, N.C., remember the bank has leased 1.6 million square feet in a new high-rise on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue.

That said, the city will likely remain on edge for some time, and a steady hand is needed on the tiller. Thus, the events on Wall Street have added urgency to a political debate under way in City Hall. That is, the move to revise the city’s term-limits law to allow municipal officials three four-year terms, rather than two. Frankly, New York cannot afford a mass exodus of its most-seasoned political leaders at a time of economic anxiety.

The time has come to revise term limits to allow not just the mayor, but the comptroller, the public advocate and the City Council to run for, and serve, an additional four years. A measure to achieve that goal has been introduced in the Council. It deserves the support of all those who care about the city’s long-term finances.

This page supported term limits when they were first approved by voters, and again when they were challenged by veteran council members. We believed that government was crowded with time servers who hung around for decades. Term limits brought in fresh ideas and new blood.

That said, constant change in the Council has only helped transfer power to the “permanent government”: Staff and lobbyists. And they are unaccountable to voters

The question is whether the city can take a chance on a new mayor, new comptroller, new public advocate, new Council speaker and a busload of new council members at a difficult time. That chance need not be taken, nor should it be. The bill to revise term limits should be presented to the Council, argued over and then come up for a vote. If it passes the Council—and why wouldn’t it?—the mayor should sign it.

The principle of term limits will remain. But a revision will allow the city to move forward with experienced leaders. And if the mayor runs for a third term and ends up losing, what better way for New Yorkers to have tested the economic chops of the incoming mayor than to have the candidates survive a debate with Mike Bloomberg over city finances?

A Time for Stability