The next City Council election is still two years away, but there already is a budding movement that could dramatically alter the makeup of the 1988 race.
As early as this week, a citizen's group will launch a drive to qualify a measure for the November ballot to limit the number of consecutive terms a Cerritos council member can serve.
If successful, Cerritos would become the 17th charter city in the state to adopt such a restriction, according to the Sacramento-based California League of Cities.
Margurette Nicholson, one of those spearheading the drive, said her group wants a two-term limit to ensure "new ideas and energy" on the five-member council. Under her plan, incumbents wishing to serve longer could run again after a two-year break.
The power of incumbency, Nicholson and others say, has become too great for challengers to overcome. They contend that incumbents have a huge advantage because of name recognition and access to both the media and large amounts of campaign money.
Viewed as Ploy
But incumbents argue that the measure usurps the democratic process by denying residents the chance to vote for the best candidate. They also claim the ballot measure is a self-serving ploy by former challengers who have been unable to win on their own credentials.
The two-term limit has surfaced periodically in the past, particularly around election time, say city officials and longtime council observers. But some believe it has a better chance of winning acceptance now because of a renewed interest in city politics.
Fifteen candidates, the largest field ever for a council race, jockeyed for three seats in the April 8 election, with incumbents Diana S. Needham and Barry A. Rabbitt winning reelection along with newcomer Ann B. Joynt. The crowded field drew 25% of the city's 23,165 registered voters to the polls, one of the largest turnouts in city history. Many of the 11 challengers in the race advocated limiting council terms.
"The time to strike is now," said Nicholson, an unsuccessful council candidate in four elections since 1976. With an obvious reference to Rabbitt, who narrowly won an unprecedented fifth term, she added: "We can't afford to elect anyone else for life to the council."
The two who initially stand to lose the most if a two-term limit is adopted are Councilmen Don Knabe and Daniel K. Wong. Both are midway through their second terms, and in interviews last week, each expressed intentions of running for third terms in April, 1988. Predictably, both said that they oppose any limit on council terms, with Wong labeling those behind the movement as "cowardly and underhanded."
'Undermining the Process'
"Out of one side of their mouth they talk democracy," said Wong, a 43-year-old obstetrician who was first elected to the council in 1978 and is serving as mayor pro tem. "But what they are really doing is undermining the process, telling voters who they can and cannot vote for."
Knabe, who succeeded Needham last Wednesday as mayor, agreed that voters should decide when an incumbent must leave office. He also questioned whether the power of incumbency on the local level is all that significant, pointing out that 12 incumbents in nine southeast Los Angeles County cities were defeated in the recent elections.
"This election was not good on Southeast-area incumbents," said Knabe, 42, chief deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana. "It showed that the electoral process works. When voters are dissatisfied with an incumbent, they will send him packing."
Rabbitt, 48, and Needham, 39, who was reelected to a third term, both oppose any limit on council terms, while Joynt, 46, a former Cerritos teacher and planning commissioner, has said she supports the measure.
If the two-term limit reaches the ballot, both Knabe and Needham said they will speak out against the measure, but not actively campaign for its defeat. Wong, however, said he would personally contribute time and money to defeat it. Rabbitt, the dean of the current council, having first been elected in 1970, said he would actively oppose the measure, but did not specify to what degree or in what ways.
To qualify a charter amendment for the ballot, Nicholson must first file a notice of intent with City Clerk Caroline deLlamas. By law, Nicholson then has 200 days to gather about 2,300 signatures from city residents, the necessary number to qualify the measure. The city clerk then has 30 days to certify the signatures before putting the measure on the ballot.
Nicholson said she and several residents plan to meet with deLlamas Tuesday to discuss the qualifying procedure.
"Soon after that, we hope to begin circulating petitions," Nicholson said. In recent months, she said, her group collected nearly 4,000 signatures from residents, but discovered too late that they had failed to first file a notice of intent, so the city did not accept their petitions.
Of the 441 municipalities in California, 82 are charter cities, including Cerritos, which celebrates its 30th birthday this week. Sixteen charter cities have adopted some form of a two-term limit for council members, according to Victoria Clark, a spokeswoman for the California League of Cities. Three of them are in Southern California: Arcadia, Santa Ana and Seal Beach.
Voters in Seal Beach overwhelmingly approved an amendment to that city's charter limiting council members to two terms in 1974. City Clerk Joanne Yoe said that the only objection to the measure came four years ago from a two-term incumbent who wanted to run again.
"He talked about trying to change the law, but his protest went nowhere," Yoe said. "Other than that, there has not been a peep about the law. People accepted it almost immediately."
Arcadia voters adopted a two-term limit in 1968, while Santa Ana residents passed a similar law in 1980.
Clark Goecker, assistant director of the league of cities, said that in years past the theory that incumbents on the local level have an edge was overrated. But now that some local candidates are employing big-time campaign tactics, the gap between incumbents and challengers may be widening. He said that the trend toward using paid, rather than volunteer, campaign staffs, conducting extensive polling and hiring professional election consultants favors those with the money.
"That often is the incumbents, who can raise money more quickly and from a greater number of sources," said Goecker, who specializes in local election law.
Many spending records were set in the recent Cerritos election, with two incumbents, Beanum and Needham, raising more than $14,500 each. One challenger, Ravinder Mehta, raised almost $14,000, but more than $10,700 came in loans to himself.
Those behind the two-term movement say that the measure is necessary to give residents a chance to regain some direct control of City Hall. Leora Einson, a 20-year resident who ran unsuccessfully for council in 1972, said the movement is not a personal attack on specific council members. She said that it is an attempt to even the odds during an election as well as give residents a stronger voice in who governs the city.
"Some people who serve too long begin to feel like they are anointed," Einson said. "We need some way to protect our interests and make sure council members remain responsive to our needs. . . . New faces will help guarantee that."