July 23, 2013 - From the August, 2013 issue

Reform? Term Limits Have Produced an Inbred City Council

Ruth Galanter, an environmentalist and Los Angeles City Councilmember from 1987 to 2003, offers the following TPR exclusive article on the origins of term limits in Los Angeles and the effects they have had on the city’s present political culture. Branded as tools of reform and better government, Galanter holds that terms limits have in fact shifted political breeding grounds, making it more challenging for civic groups to forward outside candidates. Additionally, the creation of neighborhood councils has drawn the public’s attention away from political issues to parochial concerns.

Ruth Galanter

"Term limits at the State Legislature (1990) and at the City (1991) created a closed-system revolving door for politicians, and the creation of government-funded “grass-roots” neighborhood councils diverted local activists from citywide political aspirations to far more parochial interests." -Ruth Galanter

Term limits at the State Legislature (1990) and at the City (1991) created a closed-system revolving door for politicians, and the creation of government-funded “grass-roots” neighborhood councils diverted local activists from citywide political aspirations to far more parochial interests.

Each of these required a popular vote, and proponents sold the measures to voters as “reforms” to bring government closer to the people.  Most people still think that was the proponents’ intention.  But let’s take a closer look at how and why these “reforms” came to be.

The 1990 campaign for State legislative term limits, led by LA County Supervisor and former Assemblyman Pete Schabarum, a Republican, was primarily to knock Willie Brown, Democrat from San Francisco, out of the Assembly Speakership.  Brown was impregnable in regular elections, but a statewide Good Government measure that would oh-so-coincidentally take Willie Brown out of Sacramento offered a tempting alternative.   Sold as “reform,” the ballot measure picked up support from good government organizations as well as groups who just prefer less government over-all.   Proponents had no trouble painting the opposition as “just those people who want to stay in office forever.”  The ballot measure passed. 

At the City of Los Angeles, the 1991 term limits campaign was bought and paid for by a local attorney, Richard Riordan.  Riordan, who planned to run for mayor in 1993, was active in insider political circles but unknown to ordinary voters.

Taking advantage of a peculiarity of city election laws which, thanks to an earlier “reform” measure, limited contributions to campaigns for council candidates but set no limit on contributions to ballot measure campaigns, and with the popularity of “throw the bastards out” firmly established by the statewide vote, Riordan bankrolled a city ballot initiative limiting all city elected officials to two four-year terms.   He also starred in the radio commercials.  Voters approved this “reform” measure too, and in the 1993 mayoral election, Riordan touted himself as “the man who brought you term limits.”  (Note: In November 2006, campaign reformers like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause joined the usual array of special interests to extend the term limits for councilmembers to 12 years.  Citywide officials’ limits remain at 8 years.)

The impact of term limits hit City Hall with a wallop in 2001, when the first wave of officeholders (including Riordan) “termed out.”   2003 cleared out most of the rest of those with long-time local experience, and the revolving door has been spinning ever since.

While the actual beginning of the end is a little amorphous, the differences between Before and After are not.

In 1987, council had 6 long-time veterans, 3 former holders of another elected office (all state legislature), 5 who had come from “outside,” and one who succeeded her boss.  In 2013, no long-time veterans (thanks to term limits), 9 former holders of another elected office (8 in the state legislature and one at the School Board), 4 who succeeded their bosses, and two quasi-outsiders who are both former members of LAPD.  In 1987, five members were female, in 2013 there will be one.  If current trends continue, more denizens of Sacramento forced out of state office will capture three more seats in 2015, and the rest no later than 2025.

What lures the Sacramento officeholders to run for office in Los Angeles?

Opinions, and no doubt the individual cases, vary.  Some termed-out legislators genuinely enjoy legislating and want to keep doing it.   Some enjoy the power and the perks.  Some have no other obvious way to make a living.


There are other inducements too.  City salaries are higher.  And the City’s pension system allows city employees to buy in credit for time in other public employment, such as the military, or teaching school, or state employement.  Part of Schabarum’s explicitly punitive term limits measure stripped state legislators of pensions.  A former state legislator who buys city pension credit for his/her years in Sacramento and then serves 12 years as a city official will qualify for a particularly generous city pension.

The ever-increasing pool of termed-out state legislators is not the only thing contributing to the monotony of council membership.  The pool of potential challengers is concurrently shrinking.

In 1999, another Riordan-sponsored city ballot initiative transferred much of the council’s power to the mayor.  At a campaign forum, campaign spokesperson David Fleming was asked “what makes you think we’re going to vote for this?”  Mr. Fleming was surprisingly candid in his response:  “We’ve put into the proposition something we know you will like: neighborhood councils.”  It worked.  A majority of the 19 percent of registered voters who voted in 1999 adopted the charter change.  Voters approved creation of a network of neighborhood councils and guaranteed taxpayer funding for both the councils and an entire new city department to administer these “grass-roots” organizations.  The current annual budget for this department is $ 2,322,976 of which $1,832,229 is for staff salaries. 

In the old days, outsider candidates came from civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters and local Rotary Clubs and chambers of commerce.  While these all continue to exist, they no longer generate political candidates.  Nor does it appear that Neighborhood Councils will do so, as their members are rarely active in issues beyond their own turf, which is much smaller than a council district.

Their members spend countless hours running for NC offices, arguing about whose opinion counts, reporting to the city department that oversees them, reviewing development proposals, and resolving local disputes.  They also provide councilmembers a convenient shelter from difficult decisions.  In short, they do a lot of the council members’ work but they do not generally pose a threat to incumbents or to better-known retiring legislators.

Council staffers are currently the only viable competitors to those coming out of Sacramento.  The staffers are already here, working all over the district they plan to represent.

Generally staff members start their staff careers quite young.  Many are fresh out of college or graduate school, some have been community activists associated with a particular issue, and a few have held other jobs.  Should they succeed the boss, most will do so with career experience largely limited to working in a political office.

The net result is a dramatic increase in in-breeding.   Innovation, the ability to raise unconventional approaches to issues, the ability to understand how different groups of constituents think, all require diversifying the gene pool.  We can keep some officials we’ve got, but we have to recognize that we also need thoughtful, knowledgeable, and constructive “outsiders” in public office and getting them means we have to recruit them, support their campaigns, and support them once they’re in.  


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