Reforming LA! Here’s Something We Can All Disagree On: Let’s Abolish Term Limits

GELFAND’S WORLD--(This is another article in a continuing campaign to inform, educate and energize  Angelenos on the reformation of city government … explaining the how, the why and the possibilities.) The advantage to having term limits for City Council members is that you can look forward to seeing the ones you really dislike being forced into retirement -- somebody like Tom LaBonge for example. 

The disadvantage to having term limits is that the good ones also have to leave. 

I expect that some commentators will point out that right now, we don't have any good City Council members. I tend to disagree, but let's also agree that the current system of term limits results in most members of the City Council being beginners for a substantial part of their careers. We don't get a good look at who the great ones are going to be because they don't hang around long. 

We see a lot of beginner behavior in this City Council. Sometimes it's unrealistic legislation promoting multibillion dollar bond issues that won't pass. Sometimes it's just political grandstanding over the latest micro-scandal. Here's what we won't see a lot of -- a seasoned councilman working on a transportation plan that will require the next twenty years to come to fruition. 

There is an additional problem that comes from having term limits for both the City Council and the state legislature. The two entities feed their termed-out members to each other like a ping pong game. It used to be really unlikely to see a state legislator run for a City Council seat. They either stayed in the legislature for an entire career or (rarely) ran for a congressional seat that was opening up. Now, they have a few short terms in Sacramento, and then they have to look for a new job. A lot of them run for a City Council seat in response. Thus we end up with numerous council members who know their way around the state legislature but have to relearn everything at the municipal level. Getting a bunch of City Council newbies who are actually recycled state lawmakers is not much of an improvement. They too need some seasoning at the city level. 

Mayors also have to learn the ropes and they sometimes have to fight for their own goals for a long time. Tom Bradley fought for mass transit for his entire career as mayor, finally seeing the beginnings of the Red Line project just as he was about to retire. 

Term limits was a big deal for Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America back in 1994. It seems to have been a conservative Republican fad at the time. Term limits gained popularity as popular distaste for politicians increased. I would argue that it's easy enough to feel a little bit of contempt for politicians because it is easy to be contemptuous of the compromises they have to make as they balance out competing interests, but that doesn't mean that we can do without government. 

The underlying sentiment that seems to motivate the desire for term limits is a distrust of the democratic system itself. After all, voters tend to reelect incumbents. That bothers some people, and their way to skirt the popular will is to engineer the passage of term limits by ballot initiative. It worked here in California at the statewide level and in Los Angeles at the municipal level. 

It's not obvious that term limits have gained us all that much at the statewide level. At the city level, it's equally unclear whether we have a more honest, attentive, or competent City Council. I don't see the kind of philosophical leadership that we had with Joel Wachs, for example. 

I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about the idea of abolishing term limits for elected officials here in the city of Los Angeles. The plus is that there are some in city government that don't seem trustworthy to me -- we would be better off seeing them retire. But we also ought to be thinking about scrapping term limits as part of a more broad reform package. If each City Council district were redesigned so as to be represented by not one, but three council members, then term limits would no longer be an issue. Likewise, adding the option of full public financing to council races would allow reformists to raise important issues and would weaken the advantage of incumbency. 

Term limits are, at best, a way of limiting the damage done by overly powerful, incompetent officials. In a more borough-like system, the power is more widely distributed. Under that kind of system, we can get rid of the artificial limits on numbers of terms and thereby hold onto the more respected legislators. 

I should emphasize that ending term limits is only acceptable if it is one part of a broader reform package which includes most or all of the other elements presented in this series of essays. 

Short takes 

The phony patriotism spouted by Donald Trump has taken a bite out of our communal respect for its ceremonial elements, the flag and the national anthem. When I see Trump supporters waving the flag, I sense that they are trying to say that it belongs to them and them alone. Trump made the sentiment clear when he referred to the Democrats who didn't cheer his State of the Union speech as un-American. He playfully responded to one of his audience by repeating the charge that this was treasonous behavior. 

It's hard to watch and hear this kind of behavior and not be mortified. 

That doesn't mean we have to reject the true meaning of the stars and stripes. I'm speaking here of the American athletes representing this country at the Olympics. (We can dust off the very old argument that athletes should be competing for themselves and not for a country, but the current reality is that nations send teams, and we get to root for one and all as an alternative to armed conflict.) 

Anyway, I don't worry about whether some young snowboarder is a conservative, a liberal, or apolitical. They all own the flag as their national symbol, as do you and I. It is interesting that the Olympic track athletes have adopted a style in which they take a parade lap wearing the flag as if it were a prayer shawl. The curious paradox is that people of many nations watch and applaud, the message becoming one of tolerance for another nation's existence. 

The Alternate Point of View 

Since this column begins and ends in the spirit of ambivalence, let's make clear that we've not forgotten the essential moral corruption among leaders of international sports over the past century. The Berlin Olympics featured the Nazi regime and made clear its overt racist expression. In 1968, Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith were sent home after expressing their protest over discrimination during the awards ceremony. The United States, to its shame, failed to defend their freedom of expression at the games. 

Over the past half century and more, the Olympics have been used as propaganda machines by the Nazis and then by the Soviet Union as each attempted to make a statement about the superiority of their political and cultural systems as opposed to the decadence of their opponents. American television always made a ritual about national medal counts during that era, a practice that continues today. 

None of this is anything new. The international sports body that, in comparison, makes the Olympics look pure as the driven snow is FIFA, the group that oversees professional soccer. The prevalence of bribery and extortion by FIFA executives led to a series of indictments which have led to numerous convictions and guilty pleas within the past three years. The moral failure within the U.S. gymnastics organization is only the most recent scandal. 

Meanwhile, young people depend on these systems to provide them the proverbial level playing field as they try to live their dreams. Those are the kids wrapping themselves in all their national flags. More power to them.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at