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LA MESA -- For the second meeting in a row, the City Council moved quietly through a routine agenda until the subject of term limits once again stirred oratory, political posturing and philosophical jousting.
Council member Kristine Alessio made a second run at getting her fellow council members to put term limits to a public vote in November, 2014. Her proposal would limit council members and mayor to three four-year terms and quickly drew another wave of support from a group of local residents who call themselves the La Mesa Oversight Group.
Members of that group, including used book seller Craig Maxwell (in photo above) and Bill Jaynes, a seller of British goods in the Village, rose to champion letting the people vote on the issue.
But other local residents rose just as quickly to point out that members of the La Mesa Oversight Group, in the last council election, actually supported Ruth Sterling, who has been in office for more than two decades. Jaynes quickly returned to point out that his support for Sterling was personal, but that he supported the Oversight Group's philosophical support for term limits.
Sterling, who has been taking virtually ever opportunity these days to oppose Mayor Art Madrid, then weighed in with a kind of labyrinthine logic that may have inadvertently made a persuasive argument for limits. Sterling seconded the motion to support the term limit referendum, but said she didn't think we should have term limits for the City Clerk. "We need to make sure we have a real professional in there,'' she said. Lesser council members, it is presumed, are okay with her.
Madrid made it clear he thinks virtually all successful impositions of term limits have been aimed at removing specific politicians from their jobs -- including state, local and county officials who had built up great animus among some groups, while maintaining a strong base and name recognition that made beating them very difficult.
And, of course, most people in the council chamber Tuesday, including the Oversight Group members, would acknowledge this term limit effort has been inspired by Madrid, who has been a city office holder for more than three decades.
Maxwell, who lost to Madrid in a past mayoral election, oozes contempt for Madrid whenever he addresses the council on this or most other issues. Addressing the full council Tuesday, including his new political chum Alessio, Maxwell said "Some of you do a good job but as much as we like you, we'd like to see some fresh faces up there.''
Local resident Kristin Kjaero described the support for term limits as coming from an Oversight Group that likes to "sit on the sidelines and take pot shots.'' She went on to say "we have a great city'' and repeated her position that forcing out good public servants over arbitrary term limits would erode the quality of leadership.
Patrick Dean, who has unsuccessfully sought a council seat in the last two elections, said he thinks term limits are an unneeded change that would, in an undemocratic way, keep a citizen who wants to continue doing public service from exercising that right.
When it came time for the council to take positions, it was instantly clear that Madrid and Mark Arapostathis would not be running to support Alessio. Madrid dismissed the term limit effort as "a solution looking for a problem.''
It appeared Arapostathis saw in the soaring rhetoric of the term limit supporters perhaps more of an attack on Madrid than a clear analysis of any local problem. Term limits for full-time politicians who earn full-time salaries and come right out of school to work on campaigns and eventually get elected to a life of politics and nothing else might make sense, he said.
"But we are a part-time council,'' he said, describing hundreds of volunteer hours and few of the benefits the term limiters describe among career politicians. Arapostathis said if the voters want term limits, they can go out and get the 4,800 or so signatures it would take to get it on the ballot.
The swing vote on this outing came to Council Member Ernie Ewin, a two time council member who returned to the council after having left it some years before. It was clear Ewin was struggling with the idea that the voters' decision to return him to office wasn't an informed, meaningful weighing of his earlier performance in office and his ideas. On the other hand, Ewin has found it very difficult to vote with Madrid on virtually any issue recently. When it came time to call the question, Ewin intervened with a proposal to table the subject for 60 days to allow for more public analysis of the issue. Madrid and Arapostathis quickly joined him.
At the heart of this issue, of course, are the contradictory positions both supporters and opponents hold at the same time.
On the one hand, supporters of letting the electorate vote on term limits say the people have the right to decide. But on the other hand, those same term limit supporters don't trust voters who continually return incumbents to office and want to eventually deny the voters the right to vote on an incumbent. In this latter view, the voters are described as uninformed and child-like, blinded by slick campaigns and name recognition that keep people from voting out the incumbents.
At the same time, incumbents who like to think the voters were being thoughtful and discerning when re-electing them to office over and over, aren't necessarily comfortable asking those discerning voters what they think of term limits; such proposals often succeed at the ballot box. It is the old "I hate Congress, but my Congressman is good" syndrome.
And then there are the philosophical positions on both sides. Many people believe that long-serving politicians develop expertise and can better control the bureaucracies -- often union controlled -- that represent the government machinery. Others like to believe continually refreshing of the elected class keeps government from becoming entrenched and self-serving.
The issue will come up again for consideration in 60 days, but it was uncertain if there is enough resentment toward Madrid to fuel an effort to gather 4,800 or so signatures it would take to get this issue on the ballot without City Council approval.