PERSPECTIVE : Wary Public Eyes Term Limits


The issue of term limits is shaping up to be one of the hottest topics of 1996 for Orange County cities.

Since a state law took effect Jan. 1 authorizing local governments to adopt term limits, a handful of cities have set November referendums on the issue, and many others are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.

In March, voters will decide the fate of a proposed county charter that would restrict supervisors to eight consecutive years in office.


The notion of term limits has always been popular in government-wary Orange County. The idea is likely to draw even more support in the wake of the county bankruptcy, which many blame on the action--and inaction--of longtime elected officials such as former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron.

“The public anger with government is so great that we are bound to get them,” said Jean Askham, chair emeritus of the Orange County League of Women Voters, which staunchly opposes term limits. “When there is such deep frustration, you see this kind of reaction.”

Supporters see the restrictions as a way to ensure new ideas and fresh faces to local government and firmly establish school boards and city councils as the domain of “citizen-politicians.”

But critics--including some leaders first elected to office as long ago as the 1960s--object to the notion of restricting the choices available to voters and argue that term limits rob government of its most experienced and knowledgeable contributors.

“I don’t believe we are obsolete,” said Patrick V. Ochoa, a Savanna School District trustee since 1968 and one of the county’s longest-serving elected officials.

“Change doesn’t necessary make things better. It’s up to the public to decide,” Ochoa said. “If they don’t like you, they won’t vote for you. It’s that simple.”


Even without widespread restrictions, most councils and school boards already have a mix of newcomers and longtime members. That situation would not change immediately if voters approve the November ballot measures, because the limits would not be applied retroactively.


Nonetheless, stopping the term-limit juggernaut is not going to be easy, given that the public overwhelmingly supports the concept. A UC Irvine survey conducted last fall, for example, found that 83% of respondents favored limiting the terms of county supervisors.

The push for municipal restrictions began in the early 1990s, when California voters approved an initiative creating term limits for state legislators.

Proponents fought for changes in state law that would allow Orange County’s 25 general-law cities and all school districts to seek voter approval for term limits. A few cities didn’t even wait for new legislation, opting instead to place voluntary restrictions on the books.

Since the new law took effect this month, Yorba Linda, Costa Mesa, Orange and La Palma have put initiatives on the November ballot, and other municipalities are thinking of doing the same.

Six of the county’s eight charter cities, including Santa Ana, Anaheim, Huntington Beach and Irvine, already have two-term limits.


“With the bankruptcy, Orange County government is going to change. I think term limits will help this change occur,” said Todd E. Kaudy, an Anaheim City School District trustee. “It will encourage new people to run for office and foster new ideas.”

Last week, the Anaheim school board split 2-2 on a proposal by Kaudy to seek voter approval for term limits. The absent trustee, 13-year board veteran Jeanne Blackwell, has been seriously ill since November, when she suffered a stroke.

Kaudy said that while longtime elected officials bring needed experience to local government, they can also be overly cautious and slow to embrace innovation. “It’s possible to lose touch with voters,” he said.

Other term-limit backers contend that eight years should be plenty of time for leaders to fulfill their objectives. The longer some politicians stay in office, they said, the less likely officials might be to challenge the bureaucracy.

A number of veteran politicians vehemently disagree, saying that their years on the dais have given them expert views of how government should work and where they fit into the system.

George B. Scott, who has served on Fountain Valley’s council for 20 of the past 26 years, said local representatives have few opportunities for aloofness when it comes to hearing voter concerns.


“I shop at the Stater Bros. market. I eat dinner at restaurants. I get my hair cut,” he said. “I run into constituents all the time.”

Other critics say that the focus on term limits fails to address a larger problem.

“The real key to this is removing voters’ apathy and helping them select the best candidates,” Fountain Valley Councilwoman Laurann Cook said. “We shouldn’t restrict their choice.”


Coming to Terms A new state law allows cities and school districts to seek voter approval for term limits. About half a dozen cities, including La Palma and Orange, have already placed such measures on the November ballot. Here are the views of the longest-serving elected officials in Orange County on term limits:

Patrick V. Ochoa, Trustee, Savanna School District Term: 1968-present Quote: “I feel I have plenty to offer the school district. I offer maturity and stability and experience.... There are benefits to having some continuity on the board.”

George B. Scott, Mayor, Fountain Valley Term: 1969-1978; 1984-present; running for Board of Supervisors Quote: “If you are not doing a good job, you won’t get reelected. If I do a good job for the citizens of Fountain Valley, why get rid of me?”

John O. Tynes, Council member, Placentia Term: 1950-1954; 1970-1971; 1988-present Quote: “Some [elected officials] go to sleep when they’ve been there for a few years; others don’t. It all depends on the individual who serves.... I want to see the city through the [county bankruptcy], then I’ll be satisfied.”


Frank Laszlo, Council member, Seal Beach Term: 1976-1984; 1988-present; Seal Beach limits council members to eight consecutive years in office Quote: “It’s a pretty tough job. I don’t mind having the time off to rest.”

Among council members and school trustees whose service has spanned decades are:

Robert Lindsay, Trustee, Centralia School District Term: 1965-present, possibly making him the county’s longest-serving elected official

Richard K. Shimeall, Trustee, Magnolia School District Term: 1964-1994, when he lost a reelection bid

Henry W. Wedaa, Council member, Yorba Linda Term: 1970-1994, when he retired Sources: Cities and school district clerks, Times reports, interviews; Researched by SHELBY GRAD/For The Times