|Term Limits, The City Council
And A Case Of
Disregarding The Voters
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
This is not an historical treatise. There
has been no extensive research into the subject. Im not a student of politics or
government. I am however, a political junkie who is keenly interested in government and
lived through the maturation of the NY City Council, its Speaker Peter Vallone and the
passage of term limits in our fair city.
So, I write from experience and observation
over the last fifteen plus years beginning when the City Council barely mattered right
through the next City Council election in November 2001. Sequential accuracy is not
critical here; although, I believe only my timetable may lack precision. Im certain
there will be plenty of letters to correct the slightest variance from perfection.
I present this not as a crusader, but as a
political observer/participant who has watched as the people imposed term limits on a very
resistant political structure.
They didnt take it well.
Let me take you back to when the City
Council had no power or almost none.
IN THE BEGINNING
The New York City Council can be traced all
the way back to Dutch Colonial days when New York City was called New Amsterdam. In 1653,
the town of New Amsterdam was incorporated as a city under a charter issued by the Dutch
West India Company with a council of Legislators as the local lawmaking body.
A variety of changes occurred through the
centuries and then in 1938, a new charter instituted the Council . . . with a separately
elected City Council President to vote in the case of ties . . . as the sole legislative
body, and the Board of Estimate as the chief administrative body. Certain major functions
of the 26-member Council, however, remained subject to the approval of the Board. In 1947,
council districts were made coterminous (the same district lines) with State Senate
In 1963 a new charter strengthened the
Council. However, the Board of Estimate continued to run the City. They controlled the
bucks and the contracts and land use. The Mayor, Comptroller and City Council President
(the job is now called Public Advocate) each had two votes while each Borough President
had one. These guys (and occasionally gals) ruled the roost.
The City Council and its Majority Leader
(thats what we knew Tom Cuite as) was there but they never seemed to be major
Tom Cuite retired in 1985 (heres
where the timetable may begin to rely on "fuzzy math" because of a fuzzy memory)
and Queens Beep and City powerbroker Donald Manes put together a coalition that elevated
Queens Peter Vallone to the position of Majority Leader of the Council in January
Then, in 1989, a Supreme Court ruling paved
the way for the latest revision of our City Charter. They threw out the Board of Estimate,
declaring it contrary to the principle of "one man, one vote" since those jokers
in Staten Island had the same vote as them lugs in Brooklyn and us folks in Queens.
It was back to the drawing board for our
THE NEW COUNCIL
In response, the new Charter abolished the
Board of Estimate and increased the number of Council members from 35 to 51 in 1992. The
Council then assumed many of the duties of the Board of Estimate including budget and land
use. The City Council had come of age. And Queens Peter Vallone was sitting on the
throne as "Speaker."
He consolidated his power in the
traditional political way, by rewarding allies and punishing enemies. Committee
assignments, chairs, perks, local items were used to keep members in line. Vallone has
been effective in keeping the council for the most part unified and
supportive of his initiatives.
Since his elevation in 86,
strengthened by the Supreme Court ruling in 89 and the mandated Charter revision in
92, Peter Vallone has become the "King of the Council." He utilized his
power and fundraising ability as Speaker to orchestrate a run for Governor, losing in
98 to strong George Pataki. He now has gone back to his coalition to raise the bucks
and make the run for Mayor in 2001.
Vallones rise as a citywide power
player has been politically flawless with one major exception: he has failed to secure the
jobs of his members. Vallone and the group that has seen him run the new Council will be
out of office at the end of this year. And in spite of several attempts led by Vallone,
term limits have stood between Peter Vallone and fulfilling the political mission of his
Councilmembers keeping them in office.
Let me explain.
The term limit issue must have Council Speaker Peter
Vallones head spinning. If he leads the Council effort to overturn the voters
will and repeal term limits, can he ever win an election?
In 1993, New Yorkers for Term Limits,
through a difficult petition process, financed by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, placed on
the ballot a provision instituting term limits for New York City elected officials. The
Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough Presidents and Councilmembers would be
limited to two terms in office from the next election forward.
The referendum was vigorously opposed by
the Vallone-led Council but overwhelmingly passed by the voters.
Then again in 1996 Vallone and the Council
sought to extend their careers by placing on the ballot a referendum by a Council vote of
43-4, that would dilute the voter established term limits by permitting officials to hold
three consecutive four-year terms. The voters would have nothing to do with Vallone and
his Councilmembers new attack on term limits and voted down what was said to be their
final attempt to overturn the voters will.
Not so, it seems.
The voters have spoken twice: once in 1993
and once in 1996. They have said that they do not want these Councilmembers, Beeps or
citywide officials to be able to stand for election for more than two terms.
However, rumors have abounded for the past
year plus that Vallone and company would take another shot at overturning term limits.
Last week, published reports seem to validate the rumors. The Vallone-led Councilmem-bers,
it seems, are seeking the support of a Mayor who sounds open to the suggestion to pass a
law that would overturn term limits for the Councilmembers leaving in place all others.
CHANGING THE CHARTER
There are four ways to amend the City
charter: The citizens can petition and get something on the ballot. (This is why we have
term limits citizens went out there, put their signatures on petitions and got it
on the ballot, and people voted on it.) It can be amended through a charter revision
commission. The State Legislature, which empowers the City, can change the charter by
enacting law. And. the City Council and the Mayor can agree on a law to do it.
And now, that the Councils last shot
at placing the item on the ballot one more time for their final election day before being
term limited has passed them by, it seems they may have a better idea.
"Lets not ask the voters,"
is the latest ploy; "lets do it without them." It seems that the Vallone
Council is seriously considering disregarding the decision of the voters on two separate
occasions and passing a law to overturn term limits for themselves leaving term limits for
You got it. The present Council is
seriously considering legislation that would eliminate the term limits imposed upon them
by voters. They can either cut a deal with the Mayor or override his veto.
Lets get this straight. The Council
thinks they can just change the rules that the voters established concerning their
duration in office. Yup! Now, there are sure to be court challenges if the Council acts
with such blatant disregard for the will of the voters. But those challenges may not be
decided soon enough to prevent the sitting Council from running again in 2001.
SELF INEREST OR VOTER INTEREST?
Why would they take such drastic action
contrary to the clear will of the voters? Obviously, Vallone and crew believe they know
better than the voters. Theyll tell you that the present law will force out 36 of
the 51 Councilmembers thus causing great instability. They fear that the City government
would crumble if elected officials were forced out en masse.
When they tried to repeal by referendum in
1996, New Yorkers for Term Limits called their arguments "disingenuous." Their
spokesperson said back then, "I think keeping their own jobs is whats
There are, according to US Term Limits, a
DC-based nonpartisan advocacy group, more than 3,000 cities and counties across the
country with term limits of six or eight years. Many were implemented in they same manner
as NYC. So far, we have not heard of one City to fall to term limit chaos.
The entire idea is ridiculous. Term limits
have attracted a whole new group of bright, eager public servants. The hundreds of
candidates preparing to run for vacant seats in 2001 include a large group of exciting,
One Queens race has three quality
candidates battling in the 24th District to replace Morty Povman. Povman Exec. Jeff
Gottlieb, Beep Shulman, Exec Barry Grodenchik and Council Environmental attorney Jim
Gennaro would not be in this race without term limits.
Neither would the adjoining 23rd District
have two other exceptional alternatives vying to replace Sheldon Leffler: David Weprin and
Bernice Siegel offer the voters a win-win choice. And so it goes throughout the Borough
and the City. Quality candidates are entering races once beyond their reach because you
cant take on an incumbent and win.
Term limits have enrichened our pool of
candidates. Claire Shulman, the grande dame of Queens politics, is considering a run for
Council. If the process attracts the likes of Claire to the Council, the process is
Were not going around the borough
applauding candidate by candidate, although we could. The new Council elected in 2001 will
be more talented, more energetic and less controlled by special interests, lobbyists and
big money than the present one.
WHERE I STAND
This paper has not endorsed term limits
we never have we always opposed it in the past, believing voters can always
term limit officials on election day.
We arent endorsing them now
although it is tempting.
Let me make our position clear:
1) If Peter Vallone wants to stand for
election as Mayor, he better withdraw his absurd attempt to disregard the will of the
voters. The Council must clearly and firmly denounce any attempt at modifying term limits
passed by the voters without taking it back to the voters. And if Peter Vallone
perpetuates this outrageous action, he better grab that rumored judgeship because the
people of this City will vote him down as quickly as you can say "smug and
2) Should the Council, Speaker and Mayor
believe there is a better way than the existing term limit law, they should put it to the
voters and allow the process to decide. But clearly, the action of this Council should not
affect the term limits of its members only future Council classes. Self-interest
legislation should not be tolerated.
This paper and many other papers will
continually remind voters of the names of Councilmembers who refused to accept their will.
It is time for the Speaker and Council to clarify their position. What say you, Peter?
I apologize for the passion, if it
interfered with my presentation.
I love politics and cant stand it
when politicians give it a bad name.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@queenspress.com