In giving a decisive thumbs up to a proposal to ease term limits for City Council members, Los Angeles voters this week reversed course on recent history and scrambled the deck of local politics.
By a 59% to 41% margin, voters approved a measure on Tuesday’s ballot that allows council members to serve three four-year terms, easing the two-term restriction that voters imposed in 1993.
The League of California Cities said this week’s balloting appears to mark the first time a major city in the state has softened term limits, which have been increasingly popular with voters in California and around the country over the past decade.
The city’s big political winners include Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, both of whom shepherded the ballot measure through the campaign season. Now they have the opportunity to seek additional terms while awaiting possible runs for mayor.
“The incumbents on the council now have options that they didn’t have prior to yesterday,” Councilman Herb Wesson said Wednesday. “And options are good.”
Wesson is newly eligible to remain in office until 2019, and nearly all of his colleagues now could remain in office until at least 2013.
But the resounding passage of the term-limits matter, Measure R, was not so good news for others. It introduced formidable roadblocks to termed-out state legislators who may wish to move back to Los Angeles and run for city office -- an increasingly popular trend and one followed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The problem for those legislators -- such as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who will be termed out in 2008 -- is that the number of vacancies in City Hall will probably fall as incumbents serve more time in office.
And emerging unscathed -- and at the center of the maelstrom, as usual -- is Villaraigosa, whose office was excluded from the limits-relaxing ballot measure at his request. He didn’t want another term and privately thought term limits presented a needless political battle.
With newly reelected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger subject to term limits as well, it is all but certain the governor’s office will be vacant in 2010, opening the door for a Villaraigosa run.
Election day held some other twists. The other major measure on the ballot -- a $1-billion bond to build affordable housing and help workers buy their first homes -- narrowly lost.
Measure H polled more than 62% yes votes, but it needed a two-thirds majority to pass. A state housing bond measure, which required only a simple majority, won approval with 57.5% of the vote.
Councilman Ed Reyes hailed the relaxing of term limits.
“For those of us in the trenches, I don’t think this makes us more complacent, but it does give me a chance for ... more years to be focused without the distractions,” Reyes said.
Reyes pointed to the long-promised and still-unfulfilled effort to clean up and restore the Los Angeles River. He and Garcetti have been among the project’s most ardent backers on the council, but both were facing term limits in 2009.
The term limits ballot measure was written by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, who were working on the premise that short-term officeholders were not helping the city solve long-term problems such as crime, traffic and housing.
The council then voted to put the measure before voters. That was hardly a surprise, with seven of 15 members facing term limits in 2009.
Along the way two key decisions were made. The term limits proposal, based on polling, would be coupled with other ethics reforms to make it more palatable to voters. And the ensuing ad campaign would downplay the issue of term limits.
Some council members suggested that the city’s model for easing restrictions would soon be followed in Sacramento, where Assembly members are restricted to three two-year terms and state senators and statewide officeholders are allowed two four-year terms.
“I truly believe there is a cabal of my former colleagues trying to figure out how to alter statewide term limits,” Wesson said.
It is also evident that the new balance of power in Los Angeles could shape the jockeying that is sure to begin to replace Villaraigosa, should he run in 2010 and win against a tough field that could potentially include San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
“I’m very excited to serve the city and continue to serve the city,” Garcetti said when asked about his future plans.
Greuel’s busy schedule of events across the city suggests that she’s been running for higher office for some time. Popular with the business community and in her San Fernando Valley district, she has left open the possibility of seeking higher office.
“I think all of us today are asking what does this mean,” Greuel said. “I think being mayor of Los Angeles is probably one of the best jobs ever, but my focus is on now.”
Controller Laura Chick, also considered to be a possible mayoral candidate, will be forced from office in 2009 -- complicating a future mayoral run. In a statement Wednesday, Chick said that she was eager to continue in public service, and said, “I’m not going to rule anything out, but retirement -- that’s not a word in my vocabulary.”
Another seeming victim of timing was Councilman Alex Padilla.
Facing term limits in 2009, the youngest but most tenured member of the council last year decided to run for the state Senate to secure a job.
Padilla easily won on Tuesday, the same day that term limits were relaxed for his colleagues. Padilla, nonetheless, said that he felt it was time to take the next step, but he did not rule out the possibility of running for mayor or higher office.
“But that,” Padilla said Wednesday, “is a long ways away.”