Considering Term Limits at Local Level : * Mayor's Retirement Brings Up Question of Regulating Incumbency on City Councils

Last Tuesday, Mayor Don E. Smith of Orange, who held the distinction of being the longest-serving elected official in Orange County, retired after nearly 25 years on the City Council.

The question now, in this new age of term limits, is whether Don Smith is a vanishing breed, the last of the local officials who can, year in and year out, keep getting reelected.

Evident in recent weeks, across the nation as well as in Orange County, has been a growing dissatisfaction with incumbency, although voters generally have not shown the same displeasure with specific incumbents by voting them out.

In California's general election on Nov. 6, voters passed Proposition 140, a strict, lifetime term limit on most elected state officials. City council members, however, unlike legislators in Sacramento, are not as distant from those they serve. They are grass-roots representatives, even neighbors seen regularly in the market, at Scout meetings, at the mall. Should they, too, be held to a strict limit of service? Smith's quarter of a century of service and retirement offers an occasion for reflection on the question.

Like more than 150 other city council members serving the 29 cities in the county, Smith knew his community, as it knew him. He stayed out of trouble and his neighbors liked him well enough to keep voting him back into office to represent their interests. Since 1966, he was able to keep his City Council seat because in Orange there is no limit on the number of terms a council member may serve.

But that is slowly changing in Orange County, which seemed to be ahead of the state and nation in limiting terms. Even before the passage of Proposition 140, no fewer than 10 cities, nearly one-third of the total in the county, already had put a ceiling on city council service. They are Cypress, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, La Palma, Laguna Beach, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, Stanton, Irvine and Villa Park.

It remains to be seen whether other cities or the county catch the fever and consider enacting term limits. Closer to home (where incumbents are more frequently voted out of office), there is a difference in the voters' ability to know and evaluate their elected officials than in the arenas of Sacramento and Washington.

For some, knowing a veteran public official like Don Smith up close may not eliminate the interest in term limits, but it might result in considering different kinds of local limits.

It's a point more cities should, and now probably will, ponder.

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