By Alan Jay Gerson
I have always supported an extension of term limits to three terms through a public referendum held on a regular Election Day. The mayor’s strategy made that impossible. For that reason, Councilmembers Brewer, Yassky and I introduced an amendment that would have mandated a public referendum. Any referenda, like the previous ones on term limits, should only be changed by another referendum when another referendum remains possible. That is why I fought tooth and nail for the council to place a referendum on the ballot in a special election.
I was one of the leaders who helped draft and then helped lead the effort to enact our referendum amendment. This was only the second time during my seven years on the council that any amendment was introduced from the floor. The Working Families Party and other reform organizations which supported the referendum lobbied hard to support the amendment, against the mayor’s opposition. Despite our intense efforts, that amendment lost by an excruciatingly narrow margin. Therefore, a public referendum became impossible.
We were left with two stark alternatives: Either we — the City Council — vote “yes” to extend term limits or we vote “no” to keep term limits. The same democratic principles which led me to fight for a referendum compelled me to vote to allow voters a full choice in an open election in which incumbents could run. We did not extend terms; we only allowed for an open election.
A referendum of the people commands great respect and deference from the elected representatives of the people. A referendum result must not, however, be placed on the same level as absolute constitutional principle. The New York City Charter, itself adopted through referendum, clearly gives the council the responsibility to change referenda results to respond on the people’s behalf to new, unforeseen circumstances.
The present combination of the credit crisis, the home foreclosure crisis, and Wall St. losses undeniably constitutes unprecedented circumstances. This situation poses dire consequences to our city’s economy and tax revenue, which will pose unprecedented challenges to the management and delivery of essential governmental services. The 12- and 14-year-old referenda, if left unvisited, would have mandated the simultaneous departure of more than three-fourths of the city’s elected officials, including 38 of 51 councilmembers, the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate and four of the five borough presidents.
I have heard clearly from a significant number of my constituents who, under the present circumstances, want the opportunity of voting for some continuity. It would have been better — and most democratic — to have done this through another referendum. But I had to conclude that the next-best, most democratic alternative is an open election in which voters can choose between the mayor and other incumbents. Democracy demands that whether or not two terms in the government at this time is good or bad be subject to a citywide debate; and that whether the majority of New Yorkers prefer continuity or change in any city office be subject to elections, in light of the extraordinary circumstances that have arisen.
Rigidity in the face of unforeseen situations makes terrible public policy. After 9/11, the previous mayor sought to extend his term without an election. Now, after losing the referendum, the City Charter put the council in the awkward position of deciding whether incumbents should be allowed to run for a third term. From the start, I had resolved to decide my position on the extension of term limits, not on the basis of the status of the mayor or myself or any elected official, but rather on the basis of input from constituents, combined with the rigorous application of democratic principles.
Government procedures must rest on a foundation of principle, not personality. This keeps with my long advocacy of governmental transparency and reform at all levels, from community boards to the judiciary to the City Council. In this case of the consideration of term limits at the City Council, the demands of democracy required a tortuous path, as democracy sometimes does, to give New Yorkers their greatest possible input in the makeup of their next city government.
After losing the amendment for a referendum, I concluded that this required extending term limits by only one term to allow voters aware of current circumstances to have the final say. I will now get to work on a truly independent Charter Commission, not beholden to Ron Lauder or any one particular person, to come up with recommendations to try to make sure our city never faces this mess again.
Gerson is city councilmember, First Council District