Taking on term limits

Out-the-door politics?
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EDITORIAL It's time to take a look at what legislative term limits are doing to San Francisco. Assemblymember Mark Leno, who is really just hitting his stride as one of the most effective members of the state legislature, is in his last term in office. Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin, who are two of the most effective members of the Board of Supervisors, are in their final terms. Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is the institutional memory of the left in city hall, will be gone in another two years.

In fact, Ammiano is a good case study for what's wrong with term limits. The supervisor from District 9 has always been strong on the issues, but in his first few years on the board, he had trouble getting his bills through. That was in part due to a hostile board majority, but it was also, frankly, a matter of inexperience: over time Ammiano has convinced even some of his harshest critics that he's a capable, reasonable lawmaker who can hammer out compromises that make good public policy. The recent universal health care bill is an example, something that might have been very difficult for a newbie supervisor to negotiate.

Ammiano has announced he's running for State Assembly (when Leno is termed out), which is fine for him, but the board will lose an important presence when he's gone. And losing Peskin and Daly (along with Sophie Maxwell, Gerardo Sandoval, and Jake McGoldrick) all within the next four years will shake up a board that has become the center of progressive policy development in San Francisco.

Term limits have been, by and large, the creature of conservative activists who want to increase the power of the executive branch and get rid of longtime liberal legislators, who, by virtue of representing safe urban districts, can often accumulate considerable seniority and power. (Witness Ron Dellums, Maxine Waters, and yes, Nancy Pelosi.) On a national level it's well established that a strong (often too strong) chief executive can only be tempered by allowing members of Congress to serve long enough to develop the skills, contacts, and political bases to keep the presidency in check. On the state level six-year limits in the assembly and eight-year limits in the State Senate have shifted enormous political clout to the governor — and to the lobbyists, who have no term limits and now often know more about issues than newly minted legislators.

We've always been against term limits. If former assembly speaker Willie Brown hadn't been so arrogant and corrupt, term limits for the legislature might never have passed in California. Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is working on a proposal to soften the limits slightly (possibly to allow 14 years of service in either house), and that's a good idea.

Here in San Francisco, the board ought to start work on a charter amendment to modify term limits for supervisors. Ideally, we'd like to see an end to term limits altogether, but at the very least, the two-term limit should be extended to three terms.

The only credible argument for term limits was the threat of unaccountable incumbents running rampant. But with district elections and public financing, that's not much of a threat in San Francisco. And San Francisco voters seem quite willing these days to vote people out who aren't doing the job: it didn't take term limits to get Dan Kelly off the school board.

It's always tricky for incumbent politicians to do something that smacks of extending their own job security, but the truth is, term limits are bad for the public. The supervisors shouldn't be afraid to come out and say that. *