BY RICHARD SCHACK AND NICK BUGLIONE
As the controversy surrounding the repeal of city council term limits may finally moves closer to death and after weeks of watching and speaking out, the Tribune story behind the bill is a lesson in civics and city policy.
Repeal Bill Voted Down
“Life moves on.” Those were the words of Councilman Walter McCaffrey following the Committee on Governmental Operations five to four vote against the term limit repeal bill he and others adamantly supported. If passed, the bill would have abolished term limits for council members, which were approved by voters on two referendums.
Although sponsors of the legislation met on March 20 in a last ditch effort to weigh their remaining options, supporters and opponents alike agree that the bid to repeal term limits is dead.
Manhattan Councilman Stanley Michels, the lead sponsor of the term limit repeal bill, told the Tribune that he would not lead any further efforts on the part of the current Council to push forward the bill.
Michels’ decision came after a Council subcommittee voted against the bill at a tense hearing two weeks ago. Michels said the meeting was not what ended the effort, but that it was squashed by a series of informal phone calls and meetings.
Is It Dead?
Following the failure of the bill in the Governmental Operations Subcommittee, there was speculation that co-sponsors might use a loophole in the law to bring the term limit repeal bill directly to the full council for a vote.
According to Michels, the movement would not garner the 26 votes (council majority) needed to pass.
“How can we continue without enough votes,” Michels asked.
After being voted down in committee, a number of the 22 co-sponsors of the controversial bill withdrew their support. Seven Queens members signed on the bill, including Council member Julia Harrison.
When asked about the failure of the appeal, Harrison said “Why are you asking me about this? You’re wasting your time – it’s over. A dead duck.”
“It’s done, it’s finished. I don’t think they’re resurrecting it and I haven’t heard anything downtown,” said Councilman Michael Abel, a repeal effort opponent.
Deputy Majority Leader Archie Spigner echoed Abel’s views.
“I seriously doubt that there is support for a discharge motion and a enough votes on the floor to pass it,” he said.
Role of the Media
Media backlash played a significant role in killing the bill that sought to repeal term limits, several members of the Queens Delegation told the Tribune.
According to Councilman Sheldon Leffler, an opponent of the repeal bill, the media coverage was influential in preventing the legislation from moving out of the Committee on Governmental Operations onto the general floor of the City Council.
“Originally it was thought the repeal would pass through the committee,” said Leffler. “I think the media played an illuminating role and brought wisdom to the legislators working on this.”
While many members asserted themselves on both sides of the repeal when it was first introduced, articles and editorials on the issue steered away support from indecisive others, according to Councilman Thomas Ognibene.
“I think that [it affected] the people who were on the bubble so to speak,” he said.
When asked about the role of the media, Michels shot back the “Issue was (too) deep for the media to understand.”
“I think the media played a big role, but they probably over blew it,” said Councilwoman Marshall, noting in particular a Tribune front page editorial that depicted the seven Queens council members co-sponsoring the repeal legislation as “Wanted: For disregarding the will of the people.”
Councilman and term limit repeal supporter Alfonso Stabile admitted that press coverage and public commentary surrounding the repeal got him to rethink his original position.
“Maybe I’m not right, maybe I’m wrong,” Stabile said. “The people have spoken twice and if that’s what the people want who am I to say that I know more than the majority.”
The Future of Term Limits
Although a repeal of term limits may be dead for now, some still believe that forcing 36 council members out all at once, including all seven Queens members, will have a bad effect on the borough and the City.
These council members believe that as a result, a bill calling for the repeal of term limits will come up again.
Predicting that the effects of term limits will eventually change public opinion Councilman Spigner said that the large-scale replacement of senior members with inexperienced freshmen will be detrimental and could result in another referendum.
“Hopefully term limits will be overturned next year. Everyone can say what they want – that we did this for selfish reasons, to keep our jobs, etc. But once almost the entire city government is removed, people will see we were doing the right thing,” said Michels. “Once nothing gets done citywide, we will have demonstrative evidence.”
“I still would see term limits for the council members overturned,” she said. “I think we should stop [them].”
Marshall went on to note that steps should be taken to ease the transition for the future 14 council members who will be taking office in 2002.
“I think we should establish a blue ribbon panel made up of legislators and experts and give them some money so they can do research and have them devise a plan for the new members,” she said.
“This was probably one of the most significant votes taken in a long time,” said Spigner.
The councilman added that he is confident that in the not too distant future the voters will repeal term limits after they see the impact they have.
“We feel we’ve tried to do the right thing,” reasoned Michels, “We’re trying to save the City of New York.”
Voters approved term limits of two consecutive, four-year terms for the offices of mayor, borough presidents, and council members on two separate, citywide referendums.
In a referendum on the ballot in 1993, close to 60 percent of voters city-wide approved term limits.
In 1996, voters again turned down a referendum introduced by Council Speaker Peter Vallone that would have allowed council members to run for three consecutive terms and guaranteed that not all council members would leave office at the same time.
Both referendums were funded by millionaire and failed mayoral candidate Ron Lauder.
The effort to repeal term limits in the City Council, which if passed could have gone into effect the first day of 2002, was led by Michels.
The bill to use legislation to repeal the term limit laws was introduced in late February and was co-sponsored by the 22 City Council members.
A heated public hearing on the issue was held in early March, and was followed by a council subcommittee vote.
If approved, the bill would have gone to the full council for a vote on March 28.
If They Voted Today
Based on Tribune interviews, the following tally indicates how Queens would vote on a term limit repeal if it were before them today. Sponsors of the bill that was introduced are listed in bold:
Julia Harrison: For
Peter Vallone: Against
Helen Marshall: For
Michael Abel: Against
John Sabini For
Sheldon Leffler: Against
Walter McCaffrey: For
Archie Spigner: Against
Thomas White: For
Karen Koslowitz: Against
Juanita Watkins: For
Thomas Ognibene: Against
Alfonso Stabile: Against
*Council members indicated as Not Available (NA) could not be reached at presstime.
A Tribune front page declared City Council members as ‘WANTED’ for their attempt to repeal term limits.