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The haste to replace

Whoever occupies City Hall come January should only leave at the behest of voters. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some have taken Byron Brown’s primary loss to mean the existence of a de facto term limit, comparing Brown to fellow four-term mayor Jimmy Griffin. Democratic candidate India Walton supports actual term limits. Common Council member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt suggests that Buffalo remove the position of mayor altogether, instead using a city manager appointed by the Council.

With turnout low, a write-in campaign afoot and a 16-year mayor seeking a fifth term, reform is on voters’ minds. Wyatt’s city-manager proposal is worth further discussion, but as the more popular reform, term limits command our present attention.

The burden of persuasion should be on the shoulders of those pushing for term limits. Undemocratic measures can be justified, but only for a compelling reason. Restricting voting to those aged 18 or older is technically undemocratic, but most people consider it necessary. The president and vice president are term-limited; we have come to accept, even celebrate, this.

Congressional term limits are undemocratic but have the potential to limit corruption by removing powerful, long-tenured committee chairs and party leaders. It’s to constituents’ benefit to vote for a congressional incumbent who can accrue experience and gain more and more powerful roles, all so they can push their constituents’ agenda better and shower their district with earmarked appropriations.

There must be a compelling reason to limit voters’ choice. Term limits are a blunt tool too often bandied about as a cure-all for corruption. Blunt tools have their place — no workshop would be complete without a hammer — but first it must be proven that there is a problem to be flattened in the first place.

Even the city of Buffalo, with 250,000 people, is incomparable to the United States and its 330,000,000 inhabitants. Buffalo has the Common Council, but it’s still the minor leagues compared to the state legislature and Congress. Buffalo’s 175,000 voting-age inhabitants have other careers and interests. It’s hard enough to get people to vote (20% turnout in the mayoral primary!), let alone run for public office.

The smaller the jurisdiction, the less sense term limits make. There are three assumptions that proponents make, all of which are more sound at the federal level. First, that there is a supply of capable politicians who are essentially interchangeable in quality. At the local level, even if there are many people who are waiting in the wings to replace current politicians, it is much likelier that there is a drop-off between the best and second-best, the second-best and third-best, etc.

The second assumption is that local politicians are inherently corrupt. Just as the near-endless supply of aspiring congressmen and senators ensures that term limits are logistically possible, their presence also convinces many voters that those politicians are acting for selfish reasons and that term limits are one way to limit their power. Local elected offices are exactly the opposite; there is less advancement opportunity and so those who hold the office are more likely to be doing it out of genuine public service.

We do have term limits for presidents, but the comparison between president and mayor is more than a little suspect. The federal government is a heckuva lot more powerful — between a humongous difference in budgets and a similarly sized gap in penal power, it utterly dwarfs local government in size and importance.

For the federal government (and maybe the state government with its penal and regulatory power), the trade-off between preventing a corrupt president from more than two terms is worth potentially stopping an exceptional president from a third term. A bad president can do a lot more damage than a good one can do good. But local politicians are more administrators than ideologoues.

Term limits for the president and vice president also exist so that new ideas and different ideologies can hold sway. After all, there’s only one federal government and various competing plans for how to run it. There are almost 20,000 municipalities in the U.S. What new ideas for running a local government haven’t been tried, and why can’t current councilmen be persuaded to try them?

If local officials are corrupt, there’s no reason voters can’t vote them out. There is less power to be gained from local office, so there are less machines and PACs funding their power. Unlike D.C., there are less powerful interests that consistently corrupt local politicians. And for the corruption that does exist, term limits wouldn’t do anything. By the time they kicked into effect, the damage would have been done, and voters would have wizened up enough to vote them out.

The third assumption that proponents of term limits make is that they will actually limit some councilmens’ terms. Local politicians, if they want to make a career of politics, want to move up quickly. If they don’t move to a higher office within a few terms, it’s unlikely they will at all.

If multi-term politicians are so rare, term limit–backers might say, what’s the harm? The harm is exactly that they won’t do anything, that they’ll promise voters an improved government without actually improving government. Buffalo voters might want four-term mayors, but it should be their choice. Reform for its own sake is to be avoided.

And with the term limits law, who would want to be a local politician? Term limits assume the worst of them. They tell them that they’re replaceable, that they’re not to be trusted, that public service isn’t a noble pursuit but a power grab. There are certain privileges and prestige that comes with the title, but it’s not something many would volunteer to do. Experience is valuable, and constantly severing community connections to elected officials isn’t ideal.

All of the benefits of term limits — more participation in government, new ideas, removing corrupt officials — are already accessible, if we want them. Elections are handy for removing incumbents, especially those with no PACs and limited name recognition. Sitting councilmen can be persuaded and pressured. Other rules can be used to curtail corruption.

Term limits, along with being undemocratic, are punitive. They should be reserved for the positions of highest power and prestige. Sometimes, public officials are actually serving the public. And if they aren’t, they can be removed at the ballot box. Limiting voters’ choice is bad for voters, and branding all public officials as corruptible isn’t fair to those voters choose.

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