Michael Bloomberg’s late-season proposal to extend term limits has stirred appropriate passions on both sides of the issue. The council hearings have highlighted strong views; the hearings attracted thoughtful comments from people like the former governor, Mario Cuomo, and New York University’s president, John Sexton, both of whom support the extension of term limits to three terms.
When the City Council votes on the plan in the coming days, they will not be doing so in a vacuum: The volatile situation on Wall Street, and its impact on the city’s economic infrastructure for years to come, should force all New Yorkers to ask themselves if they really want to take a chance on a new mayor, new comptroller, new public advocate, new Council speaker and a crowd of new council members. In addition, the two-term-limit law has resulted in an unfortunate increase of power for staff and lobbyists, who get to hang around as our actual elected officials get shuttled in and out of office. For these reasons, this page has been urging the Council to vote yes on the term-limits extension. After all, Mr. Bloomberg will still have to make the case to voters before November 2009 that he deserves a third term, should the measure pass.
Nevertheless, it is important that the mayor not appear to be ramming this needed change down voters’ throats. Unfortunately, he left that impression over the weekend, when it was reported that he’d asked charities to which he privately gives significant sums of money, and which also receive funding from the city, to testify in favor of the term-limit extension. Mr. Bloomberg’s uncommon generosity with his personal wealth has been well remarked upon; his record of giving reflects the character of a man who knows he’s had it good, and is highly committed to helping those less fortunate. Yet in asking groups such as the Harlem Children’s Zone—to which he’s personally given $500,000—and the Public Art Fund to testify in favor of term-limits extension, the mayor handed his opponents the opportunity to paint him as a bullying oligarch.
Meanwhile, as for those demanding a voter referendum and claiming that the mayor and the Council are trying to make an end run around the voters, they may recall that in 1989 voters approved a city charter that gave the Council the legal power to make changes in that charter, and that the Council has done so on several occasions. Thus the Council does have the authority to extend term limits. In fact, a referendum would not attract a large number of voters and thus be intrinsically unrepresentative, whereas council members are more than 40 percent people of color and do represent the overall composition of the city.
The argument in favor of the extension of term limits by a Council vote is a solid one that preserves democracy and gives New Yorkers a choice to decide whether they’d like to stick with the mayor they’ve got in unsteady times.