Take it to the limit 1 more time? Term turmoil at council hearings

By Lincoln Anderson and Albert Amateau

The hastily called two days of frenetic hearings on extending term limits last week were deemed great “political theater” by some observers. Among those who testified were a Mr. X, a man from a group called simply Rent Too Damn High! and a Latino pastor who concluded his remarks backing extending term limits by saying he prayed the City Council would “follow the Lord’s will at this time.”

But critics of the scheme by Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn to engineer a chance for themselves and other city officials to run for a third term were hardly acting, but were dead serious: To approve extending term limits without going to the voters first would be nothing less than a direct blow against democracy, they declared. Meanwhile, supporters of the mayor’s plan called lengthening term limits, if not eliminating them altogether, the best way to ensure “maximum democracy.”

Coloring the whole debate was the fact that both Mayor Bloomberg and the man who got term limits enacted through two voter referenda in the 1990s, Ron Lauder, are billionaires. Each side used the “billionaire angle” to bolster its argument — the antis saying that Bloomberg and Lauder are conspiring to extend term limits so the mayor can run in another election, which he will in turn “buy” with his wealth; while the pros said the original referenda themselves were invalid because they were funded by a billionaire.

Half of the City Council’s 51 members attended at least part of the hearings on day one. Quinn, however, wasn’t seen at either day’s hearing. A Quinn spokesperson said the speaker had been in private meetings with councilmembers regarding term limits.

The first day saw political heavy hitters testify in support of extending term limits without a new voter referendum, while good-government groups said the process is key, and that “morally” a referendum must be held.

The first to testify, former Governor Mario Cuomo said, “My position is extraordinarily simple: Term limits don’t make any sense. I’ve been against them my entire political career. Term limits are a desperate attempt to improve government based on two assumptions: After four or eight years, the incumbents will lose their efficacy; and newcomers will be better. Our city had been governed for 200 years without term limits — and became one of the world’s great cities.”

Without term limits, former mayors like Fiorello LaGuardia and Ed Koch were able to serve the city longer, he said. Cuomo added that Bloomberg, a mayor whom he called “well equipped” to deal with the city’s current state, should have that chance, too. Meanwhile, the former governor noted, cosmetics company heir Lauder, in his referendum, “spent $4 million on a last-minute effort that caught voters by surprise.”

But it’s not term limits themselves, but the way they are changed that is most important, responded Council-member John Liu, noting he opposes term limits, too.

“I agree with you — but term limits are not the issue,” Liu said. Liu supports a bill under which a charter revision commission would be formed and a special election held before next year’s general election.

Councilmember Charles Barron slammed the former governor for claiming term limits don’t make sense.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” he said. “How dare you come before this hearing and say term limits don’t work? That’s an insult to everyone of us who came in here” in 2001, the year that term limits went into effect in New York City.

The Council Chambers burst into applause as Simcah Felder, chairing the hearing, warned people they would be ejected unless they agreed not to clap and cheer, since it would slow down the hearings. As it was, the first day’s hearings ran 10 hours, ending at 11:30 p.m.

Felder eventually suggested that people “clap silently” by fluttering their hands in the air. There was frequent fluttering during the rest of the proceedings whenever a speaker made an impassioned or strong statement against extending term limits.

Cuomo argued that the politicians would still have to run for re-election if term limits are increased to three terms.

But Barron retorted, “It’s hard to get an incumbent out because of the power of incumbency. Ninety-nine percent of the incumbents win. … I’m here to say Billy Thompson [the city comptroller] would be a better mayor to take us through this crisis.”

Cuomo said that he didn’t support Bloomberg in either of the past two elections, yet called him “spectacularly well suited to deal with the current crisis.”

Anthony Crowell, counselor to the mayor, argued that the administration just wants to give the voters the chance to vote for who they want. He added that a special election would be “far less representative” than a vote by the 51 councilmembers, who each represent 160,000 New Yorkers. Crowell warned that a special election for a referendum on term limits might not be able to be scheduled until spring of next year, which would be cutting it too close to the general election.

Michael Cardozo, head of the city’s Law Department, said the City Council does have the legislative power to change term limits.

“The law is crystal clear,” he said.

Another early speaker was former mayor and longtime Villager Ed Koch. Unlike Cuomo, Koch said he has supported the idea of capping stays in office from the “very inception of the term limits proposal.” However, he added, he has always backed terms of 12 years, or three terms, as opposed to two terms. Koch said his belief was based on his own experience as mayor from 1978 through 1989.

“The mayor initiates policies and legislation and I concluded that it often takes as much as 12 years of effort and support to place in a position for lasting effect those policies and laws,” Koch testified. The former mayor added he feels term limits should apply to the State Legislature, as well. Yet, Koch said he saw no difference in the ways terms limits could be changed, whether legislatively or by public referendum. He added that the Council “is a representative body. Why you would think that your vote is less than a referendum is mind-boggling,” he told the councilmembers.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said, “We urge the mayor and the City Council to slow down this hasty process and to hold hearings in all five boroughs. Just like state legislators should not draw their own district lines, the City Council should not vote on term limits.”

Whichever action is taken, Dadey predicted, there will be lawsuits.

Former Public Advocate Mark Green, who ran against Bloomberg in 2000, said in his comments, “Let me say that Mayor Bloomberg is a good man and a good mayor, who, due to personal ambition, is subverting the democratic process.”

Green noted that Bloomberg failed to set up the charter commission that he previously said he would, and so cannot say there is now no time to do a voter referendum.

“He can’t say that it’s too late when he willfully made it too late,” Green said. The former public advocate added that Crowell and Cardozo testifying that the main reason for the mayor’s seeking to extend his term is the current financial crisis that struck just three weeks ago is simply disingenuous.

“That’s not true,” Green said, adding, “They were not under oath.”

Green continued that if Bloomberg does win the right to run for re-election, then to be fair about it, he should enter the city’s campaign finance program and not spend $80 million of his own money on the election, as his supporters have said he would do.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents the First Council District in Lower Manhattan and would be term-limited at the end of 2009, was among the council’s undecided votes on the issue. On Thursday, he asked at several points of those testifying whether they didn’t feel it was “maximum democracy” for voters to be allowed to cast their ballots for whomever they choose.

Asked by The Villager last Thursday if he was leaning toward backing extending term limits legislatively, Gerson said his questions were “just playing devil’s advocate.”

Later on, addressing Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Research Group after he had finished testifying, Liu expressed his disappointment with the major media, which mostly has backed the mayor’s push for a third term with glowing editorials.

“I have to give a shout-out to Newsday, because they did the right thing,” Liu said. “Our Fourth Estate has rolled over on us. They’ve done a flip-flop.”

Russianoff replied, “The New York Times and the Daily News did a 180-degree flip-flop without much reason other than they like Mayor Bloomberg. But the good news is that the news pages of the New York Times, Post and Daily News have covered the issue thoroughly.”

Victor Kovner, head of the city’s Law Department in 1990 and ’91, said he has always opposed term limits. While it would be best to change them by voter referendum, there just isn’t enough time left before next year’s election, he said, so it should be done legislatively.

“At this point, I think you have no choice but to pass this bill,” Kovner said.

Two speakers referred to the words of Abraham Lincoln painted on the Council Chambers’ ceiling: “A government of the people by the people for the people.”

“You are sitting here right now because of the will of the people,” Andrei Soleil, an attorney who has run for political office, told the councilmembers. “I can only believe that this room’s builders meant to remind you of that” by putting Lincoln’s statement over their heads for them to see, he said.

“The very urge of selfishness is natural, it is to be expected,” Soleil said, urging the councilmembers to “rise above.”

Before Felder’s suggestion of soundless clapping, Rachel Trachtenberg, 14, the drummer in the Trachtenberg Family rock band, earned some of the first day’s biggest applause when she said the mayor has been wasteful with the city’s money, such as by “moving the Washington Square fountain by 10 feet.” He doesn’t deserve another term, the articulate, home-schooled teen said. The Trachtenberg Family formerly lived in the East Village, but she said they were “priced out” and now live in Bushwick.

Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, a former councilmember who now describes himself as “a blogger,” had some of the strongest words against extending term limits without a popular vote.

In his 50 years in the civic arena, Stern said, “There’s never been the kind of integrity and ethical questions that this presents. Here you are,” he told the councilmembers, “the representatives of the citizens, directly undoing what they have done. There’s a very good argument for three terms — entirely credible and entirely sensible. So why try to ruin it by doing it like a putsch? What I’m trying to tell you is be honorable. Why disgrace yourselves by trying to do it in this sleazy way?”

Gerson again asked if “maximum democracy” wasn’t the best thing to strive for and noted there are “a significant number of voters out there that want to re-elect the incumbent.”

“I believe that maximum democracy means respecting what’s already on the books,” Stern responded.

Two candidates for Quinn’s seat in ’09 also testified.

Maria Passannante Derr, former Community Board 2 chairperson, told the councilmembers, “As a practicing attorney for 25 years, I am appalled by some of the statements that I have heard here today on behalf of Mayor Bloomberg, appalled at the mayor’s outright dismissal of the process in favor of his opinion that he is the indispensable man in our time of financial crisis. Process is the basis of our democratic government. The indispensable man argument is based upon the politics of fear.

“The cost of a referendum troubles the mayor,” Derr continued. “If the mayor wants to save money, he can scrap the half-a-billion-dollar, three-district Sanitation garage that he is imposing on the West Village community, accept the modification proposed by the Sanitation Steering Committee and save this city $250 million.”

Yetta Kurland, also a contender for Quinn’s Chelsea/Village seat, said, “The mayor has said that he merely wants to give the people of New York a choice. But what choice are you giving when you knock out qualified and competent opponents who simply cannot compete with $80 million and an incumbent billionaire…? This doesn’t create choices, it extinguishes them.” Councilmember Tony Avella, a candidate for mayor in 2009, is backing a bill calling upon the State Legislature to give the city authority to change the City Charter so that any change in the city’s term limits law must be subject to a voter referendum.

Avella called the maneuver by the mayor and Quinn “a total disgrace. We need the State Legislature to get involved and say, ‘You can’t do this.’ ”

Assemblymember Deborah Glick issued a statement last Thursday.

“While I have been philosophically opposed to term limits, the current debate on the method by which the law would be altered is deeply troubling,” she said. “Once again, the choice must be returned to the people through a referendum on term limits. … Instead, there was a calculated decision to wait until that option was precluded by time constraints. This is one of the most cynical political choices in my memory. A special election is now the only democratic option for deciding this issue.”

Glick also slammed the “notion which is supported by all citywide newspapers, that there is a single person capable of leading the city” in the current financial climate.

Day two of the hearings unfolded last Friday in the packed committee room of City Hall.

A few minutes into the session, a group unfurled a banner that said “Bloomberg to Democracy: Drop Dead.” They were ejected. “Anyone else who wants therapy, leave right now and go next door,” said Felder, again chairing the hearings. Next door was the Council Chambers where there was a heated debate on a city proposal to condemn Willets Point property in Queens.

Speaking in favor of the term limit extension, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said that three terms are better than two.

“With a two-term limit you arrive in office and spend time learning the ropes,” he said, adding, “Your time to do big things for the people who elected you is so short, it’s almost over before it begins.”

Referring to Lauder, Stringer said, “Back in the 1990s, we let a billionaire hijack the electoral process and we’ve been paying for it ever since.”

Richard Parsons, chairman of Time Warner, came out in support of extending terms limits during the current global economic crisis.

“Under Mayor Bloomberg and this City Council, New York City is currently stronger than ever,” Parsons said. “He and you [the council] have led the city back from 9/11, rebuilt our economy…and delivering more and better services to the New Yorkers who need them most.”

But Congressmember Nydia Velazquez insisted that the voters must make the decision.

“Even in times of crisis — especially in times of crisis — there are some concerns in which the people’s voice must be heard,” she said. “The move to extend this city’s term limits is one of those concerns.

“I oppose term limits,” Velazquez continued. “We have that billionaire Ron Lauder to thank for that, and he now reminds us that he was wrong. But the voters voted for term limits twice and the will of the people is clear.”

Velazquez went on to suggest that changing term limits by legislation would trigger the Voting Rights Act requirement that the federal U.S. Justice Department is required to evaluate all changes in candidacy requirements and qualifications.

Returning to listen and ask questions on day two, Gerson said he was concerned with the potential conflicts of City Council action on term limits.

“How do you grapple with the conflict of interest — or a perception of conflict of interest?” he asked. “If we were to change term limits maybe it should be for the next council and not be self-beneficial.”

“The mayor has us debating an issue that shouldn’t even be on the table,” declared Comptroller Thompson. “Even worse, he has proposed a measure that circumvents the voters and shatters the bonds of trust that are the essence of good government,” said Thompson, who is term-limited and a potential mayoral candidate in 2009.

“When you consider a change in how New York City is governed, at least hold hearings in all five boroughs,” added Public Advocate Betsy Gottbaum. “It’s not a decision for editorial boards or a few powerful individuals.”

Congressmember Anthony Weiner agreed that hearings on changing term limits should be held in all five boroughs.

“It’s sad that this is seen as a rich man’s job to decide,” Weiner said. “It’s sad to see two billionaires meeting to make a deal on this issue — and we know there’s a deal,” he said. Weiner insisted a referendum could and should decide the issue, and also brought up the conflict issue. “Legislators don’t raise their own pay or contracts of service,” he declared.

Yet, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board has ruled that it would not represent a conflict of interest for the councilmembers to vote on a bill extending their own term limits.

The committee and witnesses also continued to wrestle with the issue of whether there was time for a referendum in a citywide special election next spring.

“We have to choose between less-than-perfect alternatives,” said Gerson. “What would be the cost of a citywide special election and can we justify that cost?” asked Gerson. City officials pegged the cost of holding a special election at about $15 million.

Thompson replied, “What price does democracy demand?”

Eric Adams, a Brooklyn state senator and a former New York Police Department captain who served as executive officer of the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village, pulled no punches in his testimony against changing term limits by legislative action.

“You’re mugging democracy,” he said, adding, “Being for or against term limits is not the issue. The question is ‘Is New York City for sale?’” Adams, previously a leader in 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, likened the current term limit proposal to former Mayor Giuliani’s failed attempt after Sept. 11, 2001, to delay the election and extend his term.

“We didn’t crumble after 9/11,” Adams said. “Please pay attention to the man behind the curtain and say that New York City is not for sale.”

Speaking this Tuesday, Gerson said he had not made his mind up on the issue yet, and was “still in the process of reviewing and analyzing with other councilmembers,” adding he was concerned about “some legal issues about the viability of the referendum option.”