An initiative limiting Los Angeles officeholders to two consecutive terms recognizes what politicians refuse to acknowledge: The ethics problem we face in city government is the necessary consequence of entrenched incumbency. The "Elective Offices--Limitation of Terms," as the currently circulating measure is called, would help clean up City Hall and return political power to where it belongs: with the people.
The initiative, which would amend the City Charter, would allow an elected official to run for the same office after four had years elapsed. He or she, of course, would not be prohibited from seeking a different or higher post.
Conventional wisdom claims that a politician's first term is essentially on-the-job training and thus it would be foolhardy to limit the now seasoned official to one more term. Utter nonsense. Many of today's officeholders have long resumes of political activity, including duty as staffers or party functionaries. If a winning candidate doesn't know the dynamics of the office he or she seeks, it is a sad testimony on the quality of the city's political traditions and leadership.
Other critics of restricting officeholders' terms worry that imposing such limits would tacitly acknowledge the failure of our government and politics. But the worsening problems of smog, traffic jams, homelessness, toxic wastes, gangs, drugs and overdevelopment hardly constitute evidence that our political system is purring along. Instead of leadership, we have political gridlock.
The seemingly constant need for crisis decision-making is, in part, the result of officials who, having grown accustomed to office and campaign perks, are more interested in self-preservation than in the city's future. Sure, our elected leaders pay abundant lip service to protecting the integrity of the community. Then they vote to destroy one neighborhood after another, lest they alienate their contributors.
It is also said this our initiative would disturb the balance of power between elected officials and city bureaucrats. That's true. Our elected officials have held power long enough to enable them to manipulate the bureaucracy to serve their self-interest and to evade the consequences of unpopular decisions.
Finally, limiting terms by statute would end the practice of using commission appointments as "rewards" for campaign contributions. The chief problem with commissions is that their members serve too long. To be effective, commissioners must be motivated by a strong sense of public service and voluntarism, seldom the traits of merely political appointees.
Possibly fearful of losing their jobs, many incumbents reportedly are considering a legal challenge to initiatives that would limit their time in office. In one of the first such cases, a Superior Court judge recently ruled that Cerritos voters can limit officeholders' terms. So far, no California court has declared term limits illegal.
There are limits on the terms of officeholders in at least 11 California charter cities. Similar restrictions are contained in initiatives circulating in Inglewood and San Jose. The basic concept behind all these measures is that the purpose of local government, which is to serve the public, is best fulfilled by a steady infusion of new leaders with new ideas.
A two-term limit would usher in a era of responsive city government. If there is any remaining doubt that such a solution is needed, one has only to recall the performance of the City Council when recently handed the opportunity to pass an ethics reform package: It feverishly worked to kill any idea that would make it more accountable to the people.