There appears to be so much cool political intrigue in the City Hall term limits story, but a disdain for term limits seems to have caused Times reporter Steve Hymon to avert his eyes from it all. Here’s some of the story that ran this morning about the proposed term limits/ethics “reform” measure being pulled off the ballot* for violating the “single-subject” rule:
Because council members could be viewed as acting in their own self-interest, the civic organizations that wrote the ballot measure attempted to sweeten the term limits proposal with broader ethics reforms, only to run into a buzz saw of opposition.
The ballot measure was written by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters Los Angeles. At their request, the council voted 14 to 0 to put it on the ballot, sidestepping advice from Delgadillo to break it into two measures.
In these early paragraphs, Hymon makes it sound like this was a good-government reform requested by organizations outside City Hall. But at the end of the story, he writes:
The court ruling could have political ramifications for council President Eric Garcetti, who has been pressured by his colleagues to get term limits eased or face possible loss of the presidency.
So which is it? A high-road attempt at government reform, or a complex political deal engineered by Garcetti to save his presidency? Hymon leaves us hanging, just when the story starts to get interesting. I want to know: Which councilmembers threatened Garcetti? How was this threat conveyed? Is there any connection between the threat-makers and the civic organizations?
Hymon seems more interested in making term limits look pernicious. His on-the-one-hand/on-the-other struck me as unbalanced:
Proponents of term limits credit them with ensuring fresh faces in government. Critics, however, say they deny voters the chance to vote for qualified incumbents and discourage lawmakers from tackling politically difficult issues.
Actually, the argument for term limits goes beyond the need for “fresh faces.” Given the way the district lines for state and local officials are drawn, and given the way campaigns are financed, incumbents become nearly impossible to dislodge absent a severe scandal or a major political sea-change. Which means incumbents could govern pretty much however they wanted, for as long as they wanted, with little to fear from the electorate. That’s why term limits became popular; and other than term limits, nothing else has changed that would ease voters’ concern about abandoning or relaxing them.
Term limits are imperfect, a blunt instrument, and I can think of lots of areas where it has altered the council’s approach toward the city’s long-term assets. But the political class hasn’t given voters anything else with which to curb the power of incumbency, so the voters will tend to hang onto term limits.
Hymon also demonstrates a bit of the Stockholm Syndrome on the question of whether it is term limits that “discourage lawmakers from tackling politically difficult issues.” That’s what the political leaders say, but is it really true? Isn’t it just as credible to assume that a politician who will no longer face the voters after their last term could be encouraged to deal with difficult issues, while a politician who is always looking toward the next re-election would be discouraged?
The “politically difficult issues” issue strikes me as more of an alibi; or maybe a ransom demand: Let me keep my office or else I’ll vote like a coward.
A poll commissioned earlier this year by the chamber and the voters league found that a proposal to ease term limits stood a better chance of passing if it were combined with other reforms. That poll was widely circulated in City Hall.
I would have liked more information on that poll. Which “other reforms?” Anything that smelled kinda like reform? It might be interesting to find out how specific the poll was about the “other reforms,” to compare them against the “other reform” the council actually put on the ballot. If Hymon was curious enough to ask.
The motives of the measure’s opponents are scrutinized for political self-interest much more skeptically than its proponents’:
Controller Laura Chick and Delgadillo were unhappy that the proposal to ease term limits didn’t include their offices, while ethics commissioners were upset they didn’t get to vet the lobbying reforms.
The Chick/Delgadillo complaints are always mentioned in these stories. But Hymon makes no mention of his own coverage a few days earlier of the Council’s attempt to trick voters by describing the measure in its ballot title as a “change” in term limits, avoiding language that would suggest the change was to lengthen them. Garcetti’s explanation for why he preferred the vague word “change” was funny, I thought:.
In a legal opinion last month, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo warned the council that the ballot title could provoke a legal challenge and recommended that it use “lengthen” in the title while also saying that “change” was legally sufficient.
At the time, council President Eric Garcetti said that using words such as “lengthen” or “extend” were politically loaded terms and that “change” was more neutral.
Sure is! I can see it now. Don’t call it a tax increase, call it a tax “change.” A power plant wants to emit more pollutants? Don’t say it that way! Call it an environmental “change.” “Officer, I wasn’t going too fast. I prefer the more neutral ‘changing speeds!'”
*By the way: This afternoon, the 2nd District Court of Appeals directed the county registrar to put the measure back on the City ballot. This doesn’t mean the matter’s settled, but it does mean that if the measure survives after a hearing, October 3rd, the voters will be able to vote on it Nov. 7th, rather than waiting until next year. The decision is more a recognition of the need to start printing ballots and allow for the possibility of the measure’s survival than it is a determination of whether the city violated the “single subject” rule.