On Tuesday, August 14, the Common Council will consider an ordinance I proposed that would create term limits for the mayor and alderman. The ordinance would limit any person from holding any one office for more than 12 consecutive years.
My proposal is considered a “charter ordinance”; therefore, it will require six of the eight aldermen to vote to pass it. That might not happen unless you let your alderman know that you support term limits.
If you support term limits for Congress, and most people do, you should support term limits locally.
In most every instance in communities in Wisconsin and around the country, when voters are allowed to vote by referendum on term limits, they vote to approve them. I suspect that would happen here, but voters are unlikely to get the chance, Mequon has few referendums. Plus, if the Common Council says no to this proposed ordinance, how likely do you think they are to put the question on a ballot? I expect they know what the result would be.
I should note that this proposal is not directed at any particular alderman. The longest tenured alderman, Dale Mayr, is my very close friend. Moreover, to ensure it is not personal, the new ordinance would only kick-in after an existing alderman or the mayor is elected four more times (I promise you I will not run four times – I term limited myself as an alderman). Instead, this is a Good Government proposal that, in the long run, will serve our community well.
Since January 1, 2000, incumbent aldermen have sought reelection 49 times. They won 48 times. Only one incumbent, in 2006, lost. Incumbents are 48-1.
We have been fortunate to have mostly very good people holding office. But that good?
Even on a local level, it is much easier to win reelection as an incumbent. Remember, 48-1. Incumbents have better name recognition. Plus, people in Mequon have been blessed with generally good government. They therefore attribute that good government to incumbents (even incumbents who contribute little) because most people do not know who contributes. Even when they do not like something at City Hall, they often blame it on those “other people” on the Common Council. After all, their aldermen – the man or woman who lives down the street – is a good person (this is one of the same reasons congressional incumbents often win).
Incumbents rarely have challengers. Most potential officeholders see the task of defeating an incumbent as too great. They do not want to throw mud or go negative, and that is usually what is required to defeat an incumbent.
Term limits ensure that, at least occasionally, seats are contested. Most of the time, when there is an open seat, a couple of people run. Issues are discussed. Voters are engaged. New ideas are at least considered and possible deficiencies at City Hall are debated. Democracy is engaged.
Opponents (mostly officeholders and their families) have arguments against term limits. Their arguments hold little water.
ARGUMENT: Term limits are anti-democratic.
THE TRUTH: Poppycock. Voters get a choice. In fact, with term limits, they are more likely to have a choice. Measures to encourage contested, vigorous and positive campaigns are the essence of democracy. Term limits do that. It is true that every 12 years they might be “deprived” of one potential candidate. However, it is pure arrogance to suggest that the incumbent is so special that he or she needs to be retained. The last time I looked, none of our elected officials – me included – walks on water.
ARGUMENT: Term limits are only needed for partisan races because of the pernicious influence of money in politics.
THE TRUTH: Even though our elections are not determined by money, our results are the same – incumbents keep their offices regardless of the contributions they make. Remember, 48-1. There is a power to incumbency.
ARGUMENT: Experience is lost through term limits.
THE TRUTH: Experience is important. It takes a couple of years to understand how city government works (and how It can be improved); however, smart people can catch on and make a difference fairly quickly (certainly by the end of their first term). If someone takes multiple terms to figure it out, they probably should not be holding office. Because we only elect one-third of the Common Council each year, and the ordinance would allow four terms of three years each, the majority of the Common Council will always be experienced.
ARGUMENT: Institutional memory and “Old Mequon” are lost through term limits.
THE TRUTH: Voters will always be able to elect long term residents. For many of us, that would be one of the things we consider when voting (I am a 40+ year resident). Plus, even without term limits, most of the current Common Council has not lived in Mequon for 25+ years, yet most do not want radical changes. The Common Council reflects the residents of the community.