Council Votes 3-2 To Delay Term Limit Decision

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.

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Tags: Art Madrid, City Council, Ernie Ewin, Government, Kristine Alessio, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, La Mesa newspaper, Ruth Sterling


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Comment by Russell Buckley on October 23, 2013 at 8:46pm
Chris, the LMCOG endorsement for City Council was posted on the LMGOG website. We make an effort to clearly identify opinions that are held by the Group as a whole. More important, you let someone drag your reporting into the mud of attacks on LMCOG rather than keeping the focus on the issue at hand - term limits. It is unfortunate that some choose to substitute personal attacks in place of reasoned discussion on the issues, but I hope that a quality publication such as yours would recognize the difference and not go there.
Comment by Bill Jaynes on October 23, 2013 at 6:36pm

I wouldn't think the distinction between the La Mesa Citizen Oversight Group's decision to not compromise our principles in our formal endorsements, and my personal support for Councilperson Sterling at the lectern last fall, is as subtle as made out to be. Then again, neither was it hard to follow, and find persuasive, Ms. Sterling's argument that the City Clerk and Treasurer are less political offices by nature, and ought not to be subject to term limits.


Nor is it fair for opponents to negatively characterize us at LMCOG as simply "sit[ting] on the sidelines and tak[ing] pot shots" when our membership has grown to the point we now include barbs, darts and brickbats in our repertoire. Sometimes we even throw in an exploding cigar for the sake of false humility, as when we couldn't make good on our fictional threat to filibuster the Council until our mythical minions directed the City Manager to have staff finally distinguish between Phillips and Frearson screws on future master inventory lists, which might even be a real thing for all I know. (In case I'm being too opaque with my signifiers, you should know that none of the preceding really happened, by the way.)


Lest the real point be lost, I'm trying to say that we can make this debate one of ideas and not personal attacks and private motive, if we choose. Patrick Dean exemplified the best in us last night when he acknowledged an accidental misstatement regarding LMCOG, while standing firm against the proposed term limits we support and that he might have benefitted from had they been in place during the last election.


In fact, one less remarked upon problem the "incumbent advantage" fosters is the seemingly inevitable cults of personality that follow, distorting every disagreement over policy into "my candidate is an angel and yours is a devil" while important issues are thrown by the wayside. For example, when the Mayor is praised by term limit opponents for single-handedly bringing in $5 Million in grants to fund the Streetscape (a claim he would surely be the first to disavow in recognition of the tireless staff work that went into this project), not only is the insinuation left that proponents must want to hurt La Mesa in their supposed zeal to "get Art", but the more substantive question as to why we find ourselves utterly dependent upon Other People's Money to accomplish any major project is left begging. 


It would be easy for term limit proponents to feel disappointed by the Council's decision to delay action for two months. On the other hand, and speaking for myself as a member of LMCOG, I see this an opportunity to foster our core aims of transparency, openness, accountability and meaningful public input by all sides. I'm grateful to Councilperson Alessio for bringing this item forward, for the thoughtful comments by the Mayor and the rest of our representatives that have already clarified some issues and concerns, and hope they continue to move the process with alacrity while we begin our own efforts to further the dialogue.


It's important to remember that competing tensions will always exist , both within the abstract realm, and across the fault lines where theories of governance and practical politics rub up against each other in our system. As you note, Chris, proponents are seeking to vindicate the public's right to exercise their sovereignty by demarking a limitation upon themselves, while opponents find themselves in the equally uncomfortable position of asking the Council to protect citizens freedom to vote as they please by throwing obstacles in the path of their ability to do so.


There is no Platonically ideal answer, so we must each fashion our own resolution. I reconciled my belief in term limits with support for Ruth Sterling by asking if I thought her track record was such that she could still win after a mere two-year absence called for in the term limits proposal, on the power of her deeds and not the prestige of her office, and concluding that she would, as did Ernie Ewin after a slightly more extended time away from the Council.


In like manner, term limit opponents, many of whom also support limits on campaign contributions, will find themselves obligated to distinguish one limitation upon our rights, to vote for whom we please, from another, to monetarily support those we think will best represent us. Some might find, after honest appraisal, that they can't, especially after confronting the equally heavy thumb that incumbency places upon the scale.

Opponents might also ruminate on how dedicated to the community they believe their preferred candidates to be, that they anticipate our public servants would deny us the benefit of their experience and accumulated wisdom during a brief two year sojourn after more than twelve consecutive years on our payroll.


On another note, and lastly, I'd like to point out that the La Mesa Citizen Oversight Group may be the lamest excuse for a sinister shadowy cabal I've ever seen. We meet publicly every two weeks at Johnny B's (AKA the "Green Dragon Tavern" in another of the arcane historical allusions we're so fond of), and anyone is welcome.  We don't even think we have a lock on good ideas, so you will find yours welcome, even when we disagree over a libation or three. Our motto is "shots, not potshots".


At the very least, check out our webpage, , and link us on Facebook for updates on our nefarious shenanigans in furtherance of the enlightened self-governance experiment.


Bill Jaynes


8401 La Mesa Blvd.

619 464 2298









Comment by La Mesa Today on October 23, 2013 at 11:19am


Glad to highlight the distinction between the group's formal support and the individual support of its individual members, though the distinction may be lost on most. Thanks for your engagement, as always.

Chris Lavin, Editor

Comment by Russell Buckley on October 23, 2013 at 10:36am

One Correction and two observations: The La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group did not endorse Ruth Sterling in the last election. LMCOG endorsed another candidate who did not win office. I think a correction in order. Term limits, as proposed, would be effective beginning with the 2014 election and currently serving members would be grandfathered in. Thus it would not impact anyone until 2026. It would only impact Art Madrid if he intends to continue as Mayor well into his 90's. Term limits is a well established idea. They apply to our State legislature, our County Board of Supervisors and the City of San Diego, among other places. There are pros and cons to term limits, but when put to a vote of the Citizens they almost always win. A majority of people recognize the enormous advantage incumbents have in winning. There are a lot of talented  people in a city the Size of La Mesa well able to serve the citizens - we should give them a fair shot.   

Comment by Kristine Christensen Alessio on October 23, 2013 at 10:04am

Characterizing Ms. Sterling's logic as "labyrinthine" is bit insulting don't you think? Normally I don't comment on your blog, but that was just plain rude and uncalled for.

Comment by Kevin G George on October 23, 2013 at 9:16am

First, our correct name is : La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group, please visit our website.

Second: The La Mesa Citizen Oversight Group officially endorsed only one candidate in the 2012 election. That was Laura Lothian.

Although Ruth Sterling was a favorite in our camp lengthy deliberations and much discussion involving the question of how we could endorse Ms. Sterling with knowledge of our future term limit efforts were held. It was decided that we, in light of our position on term limits, would be somewhat hypocritical to endorse an incumbent. It was decided to forgo endorsing two candidates and endorse only Laura specifically to eliminate potential accusations of hypocrisy.

Even though we deliberated all that time, made that tough decision and then made it crystal clear in the press who we were endorsing we are STILL accused of hypocrisy. 

Thank you Mr. Lavin for correcting this error in your article.

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