Two Terms or Three? Voters Will Get to Decide

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

City voters will get to decide in November whether to restore a two-term limit for elected officials or keep the current three-term cap put in place in 2008. Last night, after months of public hearings, the mayor's Charter Revision Commission finalized the questions that will go on the general election ballot this November.

The catch: Even if voters reject the current status quo and demand a return to two terms, the referendum will still grandfather in current City Council members, borough presidents and citywide officials and allow them to run for a third term.

Commission member Stephen Fiala says that third term is necessary to maintain a healthy mix of fresh faces and experienced lawmakers. Otherwise, only 19 current first-term council members will be allowed to run again.

"It permits a more balanced staggering of terms, thus creating a more responsible government," said Fiala.

Commission member Joseph McShane had argued that whatever voters decided should take effect immediately. In other words: If voters go for two terms, that's it -- no 'grandfather clause' for people in their second term. "That someone who had run for office ran with the expectation of three terms. Somehow that expectation became a right, and I had difficulty dealing with that concept," said McShane.

In the end, McShane's option did not win enough votes to pass, and the third-term 'grandfather clause' prevailed.

And that's the relatively simple ballot question. The commission also decided to ask voters a second referendum question in November, a single question that touches on several issues, like improving campaign finance disclosure, reducing the number of petition signatures needed to run for office, increasing the fines for violations of the city's conflict of interest laws -- and more.  

Commission chairman Matthew Goldstein says lumping these issues into a single question is necessary because of the physical constraints of the ballot.

The commission's final referendum questions now go to the city's Law Department for review before being printed and distributed -- so that voters can try to make sense of them before walking into the booth on Election Day.

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