Former Governor Ed Rendell is on something of a 'No Fucks Left to Give' tour lately.
Last week he endorsed a package of ideas to change ward politics by introducing more democracy and accountability into the mix. And this week he argued that all city elected officials--not just the Mayor--should be limited to two 4-year terms.
[Rendell] called for term limits for every local elected official (only the mayor has a limit of two four-year terms).
“I believe we should change the charter and every elected official in Philadelphia -- controller, district attorney, mayor, and City Council members -- should be limited to two terms,” Rendell said. "We would have a more effective and efficient government if we did that.”
Public opinion is on Rendell's side on this issue. Philadelphia 3.0 polled the question last year and found that about three-quarters of voters favor some type of term limits for City Council. There's broad appeal to the idea that candidates for office should be able to get in for a few years, try to make a difference on some issues that matter to them, but at least at the local level, elected office should be more like a tour of duty than a lifelong career.
Philly is the only major U.S. city that has executive but not legislative term limits, but we should really pass term limits, because they'd make Philly politics work better in several important ways.
Because Philly is an overwhelmingly Democratic town by voter registration, and because there's not much of a culture of intra-party competition within the city's Democratic Party, the same elected officials tend to remain in office for a long time. But semi-regular replacement of elected officials is important for cycling new ideas and thinking into our political system. If electoral competition isn't going to be a force we can rely on to mark political representation to market, then we need to simulate that with term limits.
The best part about term limits for local office holders would be more frequent open primaries, with no incumbents on the ballot. As we're seeing with the District Attorney primary, open primaries are pretty awesome. Only Michael Untermeyer is up on TV so far, so everybody is boot-strapping it at all kinds of public forums and debates. There's a full calendar of events happening every week, and the race has stayed mostly substantive and issues-focused so far.
We rarely get to see this kind of a competition in local politics outside of the Mayoral elections every four years, because intramural competition within the Democratic Party is strongly frowned upon by Democratic City Committee and elected officials. Most incumbents on Council or in the Harrisburg delegation don't see too many serious primary challenges, and few are exposed to general election competition. So because there are no term limits, they stay in office forever.
And when politicians do finally retire or go to jail (in roughly equal proportion, lately) that typically do it in the middle of a term, so they get to hand-pick their replacement in a special election.
If Council and other row offices were limited to two terms, there'd be more seats opening up more often, and more open primaries. Prospective candidates would be better able to plan campaigns around a predictable schedule of politicians terming out, and there'd be a more competitive politics for Council seats within both parties.
You also don't want the row office holders getting too entrenched. Most of our remaining elected row offices should become appointed positions (City Commissioners, Sheriff, Recorder of Deeds), but electing the District Attorney and Controller is appropriate because their job requires some additional measure of independence from the other branches of government.
The longer people serve in elected office, the less independent they tend to become, so it's important for our institutions to encourage turnover of those offices as well as City Council.
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