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Inside the term-limit battle - Pols take sides in tug-of-war to decide their political lives

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As the City Council debates several bills concerning term limit extensions for all citywide offices, Brooklyn lawmakers, good government groups and the legal profession continue to parade their views publicly while jockeying their positions behind the scenes.

At issue is Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to legislate through the City Council a change from the current two four-year term limit to three four-year terms, thus allowing the mayor to run for a third term.

If the Council approves the measure, which can be legally completed, it will fly in the face of city voters, who in 1993 and 1996 referendums, overwhelmingly voted to have two four-year terms for all city elected officials.

However, until that time comes, which could come as early as Oct. 23, the battle over term limits is being waged on several fronts.

City Council

There are three bills and one resolution concerning extending the term limits currently floating around the Council.

Bloomberg’s bill, with the support of Council Speaker Christine Quinn, would extend term limits to three four-year terms, but also calls for the setting up of a Charter Commission to prepare for another public referendum on the issue in 2010.

Talk has also been floating around City Hall of a possible clause in the bill ‘grandfathe­ring’ freshman and special election Council members who are not term-limited out for the 2009 election to also seek a third term regardless of another public referendum.

In Brooklyn, six of the borough’s 16 Council members support this measure. All are term-limited and include Erik Dilan, Lewis Fidler, Michael Nelson, Domenic Recchia, Diana Reyna and Al Vann.

“I think it’s best for the city to keep experienced people in office, especially during these terrible economic times,” said Nelson, whose 48th District includes Sheepshead Bay north into Midwood.

Nelson said that term-limiting out 34 of the Council’s 51 members leaves a permanent government consisting mainly of staff and Council operatives.

“Thirty-four new members and a new mayor is a gamble the city shouldn’t take, and this way all the voters will be allowed to choose if they want to keep Bloomberg, the borough presidents and City Council members,” he said.

Opposing the Bloomberg/Quinn legislation are two term-limited borough lawmakers – Bill de Blasio and Charles Barron – who are both running for borough president, and four freshman/special Council members who will not be term-limited out in 2009.

This group includes Mathieu Eugene, Vincent Gentile, Letitia James and Darlene Mealy.

“My position is if it was a referendum, I would argue three terms provides far more opportunities for Council members to see through their programs and help constituents in their districts,” said Gentile.

“But if it’s not being done in a public referendum, I plan to vote no, he added.

Gentile said most of his colleagues are either against term limits or favor three terms, but the primary issue is whether the new law should be legislated in or put to a public vote.

Gentile said the Bloomberg administration has been telling freshman and special election members who are not term-limited that they will also be allowed to seek a third term, but he is not buying the words.

“He [Bloomberg] was supposed to be for the people who supported him on the property tax hike and congestion pricing, but despite his track record he is saying trust me, trust me, trust me,” said Gentile.

The second bill comes from de Blasio and James, and it proposes the creation of a Charter Revision Commission, which will then schedule a referendum on this issue at a special election in early 2009.

De Blasio has been the most vocal advocate against the Bloomberg proposal.

“There is plenty of time to hold a referendum on term limits, and the mayor and the speaker are blatantly ignoring that option in favor of a fast track legislative approach that cuts out the public,” said de Blasio.

“We were elected to protect and represent the voice of the people, not to conceive creative ways to silence them,” he added.

A third bill calls for the creation of Charter Revision Commission to study any extension of term limits.

The resolution being floated around City Council chambers would move the decision to the state government in Albany to decide the matter.

The thinking behind this resolution is that the self interests of the City Council and mayor make it next to impossible for these governing bodies to be objective.

State Initiative

Brooklyn Assembly member Hakeem Jeffries is proposing a state bill requiring that any municipality, city, town or village in the state conduct a public referendum prior to any change of term limits law becoming effective.

“If the City Council does not do the right thing and put forward a referendum on term limits, then the state legislature should step in on behalf of the public and stand up for democracy,” said Jeffries, who represents Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.

Jeffries said aside from the term limit issue, strong consideration should be made to staggering the elections so there remains continuity in the legislative branch.

Every two years, one-third of the U.S. Senate is up for election and something along those lines should be done with City Council elections, he said.

Jeffries said there appears to be solid support behind his proposal in the Assembly, although Governor Paterson has yet to state a view on the issue.

Sources in state government say that several senators will introduce a similar bill on their side of the aisle right after next month’s election if the Democrats take over the majority in that house.

Grass Roots, Legal & Clergy

Since Bloomberg has come out with the idea of a third term, several good government groups and/or political organizations have come out against the measure.

Among these groups is the Working Families Party, which has started a citywide petitioning drive against the measure.

Several prominent Brooklyn clergy leaders have also come out against the Bloomberg proposal.

“One man did not get us in to this economic crisis, and one man cannot get us out,” said Rev. Clinton Miller, pastor of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Fort Greene.

“By usurping the will of the people, you weaken the core of our democracy; and democracy is bigger than any one of us.”

Should the City Council pass a measure extending term limits, there are also expected to be several legal challenges questioning if it would violate the federal Justice Department’s Voters Rights Act.

“There is no conceivable way to justify refusing to hold a special election on the basis of the Voting Rights Act. That is because it is surely more democratic to let the voters decide this fundamental issue than to leave it to the 51 members of the Council to vote themselves and the Mayor another term in office,” said election attorney Randy Mastro.

“And there will likely be a special election in parts of the city early next year anyway to fill several Council vacancies. Therefore, the only democratic way to decide this question is not by legislation but, rather, through a referendum,” he added.

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