Why Term Limits Are a Bad Idea for Municipal Government


Term limitsLeo Longo wrote in three recent Municipal World articles (April, May, June, 2014) that it is time to consider setting term limits on municipal politicians.

I beg to disagree.

Is municipal democracy in such dire straits that it needs restrictions that no provincial or federal politician faces?

Are voters so ignorant and ill-informed that they need outsiders to guide their choices?

Applying arbitrary term limits goes against the grain of representational democracy, suggesting the arbitrator knows what is better for the electorate than the electors themselves; that democracy needs outside control because it cannot regulate itself.

What problem would such limits solve that are not already solved by the electorate, and by existing accountability laws? It is certainly not the panacea for voter malaise or low turnout.

Mr. Longo suggests the “status quo has produced many of the negative consequences…” but he fails to identify the negative consequences that occur under term-limit systems.

For example, Mexico has three-year terms and no-re-election policy. Every municipal government is entirely new, with no experienced politicians to help guide the city. The system has been widely criticized as ineffective because “Voters never have the opportunity to pass judgment on the record of their elected officials, so those officials see no incentive to having a record at all, good or bad.”* It is also said to “impede performance.”** I have seen its effects in some Mexican cities: a year of confusion getting to know the job, a year trying to get something done, then a year coasting to the end.

Incumbents are often said to have an advantage, as Mr. Longo notes. Some of this comes from name recognition: but for that to be true, you have to get your name in the community.This is only done by being active at the table and outside. Inactive or lazy politicians don’t get that.

Nor do those at odds with the media, despite their record or experience.

Is this an “unfair ‘tilted’ playing field” as he suggests? I don’t believe so. Sometimes that name recognition can work against a politician, too.

Mr. Longo writes, “Many councillors appear to be returned to office not for their vision, productivity, or effectiveness… but simply as a result of voter recognition of their name and the fact that they are the current office holder.”

While I admire Mr. Longo’s apparent psychic ability to get inside the minds of many thousands of voters and pry out the logic of their choices, and to be able to determine that re-elected incumbents have no vision, he does not justify this claim with any research or statistical data.

I also question whether voters would agree that they were so uniformed they were re-electing people with no vision; the comment seems to slight the wisdom of the electorate.

In Collingwood’s 2010 municipal elections, only three of eight incumbent candidates were returned to office. Of the five not returned, four were veterans of more than one term. They certainly had name recognition and all the advantages incumbents are said to have. Most had solid platforms that addressed upcoming challenges. The voters just said no.

Across Ontario, in 2010, 135 of the 444 municipalities saw more than 50% newcomers elected. Nine communities elected entirely new councils, and 1,095 newcomers (38% of the total) and 146 new heads of council (40% of the total) were elected.***

That suggests the electorate is quite capable of thinking for itself.

In my experience, many new candidates lack name recognition because they have no previous experience in community service: no service on boards or committees, they are not members of service clubs, they are not engaged in volunteer and fundraising activities. They don’t get their names and photos in local newspapers before the election simply because they don’t do anything to merit it. Some simply stand for office, thinking that an angry or loud voice is all that matters.

Kate Daley, an academic blogger, writes that incumbents have no advantage in fundraising:

“…our municipal system already significantly reduces one of the most significant advantages of incumbency: fundraising. At other levels, elected officials and their party’s association in each riding can fundraise for the next election at any time, and can save up money between and through elections to spend on the next race. In Ontario, municipal politicians can only raise money in the year of the election. Challengers have the same window in which to raise and spend money as incumbents do.”****

What she doesn’t say is that in Ontario, donations to municipal political campaigns are limited to a maximum $750 per person.+

Daley also notes one of the major problems with applying arbitrary term limits: the dwindling lack of accountability in the final term:

“A two-term limit would mean that each municipal official would spend half of their time in office without having to worry about facing their constituents in an election again. They have no particular reason to work with their communities to find solutions, or to meet the expectations of their constituents. They can make whatever decisions they want without real penalty. As long as they show up to meetings, they can choose to say or do nothing, if they want, and never have to justify it to the people who elected them. Elections keep politicians responsive, engaged, and honest. That’s why we have them.”****

Basically, with a term limit, the final term would follow the Mexican model: no need to prove yourself to the electorate, no need to listen to the people because it doesn’t matter any more.

Michael Smart (University of Toronto) and Daniel Sturm (London School of Economics), writing in their 2013 paper, Term Limits and Electoral Accountability, said:

…elections enable voters to selectively retain incumbents whose track record suggests that they are of high ability. Second, electoral accountability constrains opportunistic behavior of incumbents. If the payoffs from future terms in office are sufficiently large, then the threat of being replaced by a challenger should reduce politicians’ willingness to implement policies which are not in the interests of the electorate.

From this perspective term limits, which limit politicians to a maximum number of terms in office, are a curious intervention into the political process. In the presence of term limits voters are unable to retain good politicians who face a binding term limit. Furthermore, term limits reduce or, in the case of a binding term limit, eliminate the incumbent’s payoffs from future periods in office, which reduces voters’ ability to punish opportunistic behavior by threatening to replace the incumbent with a challenger.

In my own experience in four elections (three terms elected) and in covering municipal elections for the media another decade before that, incumbents may also have an advantage because they know the issues, the procedures and the processes. They can address specific topics in detail and provide relevant data.

Many newcomers arrive unprepared to debate complex matters like planning, debentures and administrative structure. They express vague unease about things like budgets and taxes, but lack specifics. Voters look for answers and facts.

I’ve also heard more candidates express a desire for term limits when they lose an election, than from those in office, as if that will give them the opportunity get into office the voters denied them.

When the question of municipal term limits was raised in Alberta, in 2012, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Ald. Brian Pincott commented on the issue:

Pincott said setting a term limit on civic politicians’ years in office doesn’t present a clear-cut favourable answer.
Engaged, efficient and passionate political representatives should stay in office longer and “crappy” ones should go sooner, Pincott said…
Nenshi said he doesn’t believe in term limits.
“I think campaign finance reform is the answer to this because as long as you have free, open and fair elections where challengers have an opportunity to challenge, then people should have the right to decide whether they want to keep their representatives or not.”

Voters, too, can look at the records of incumbents, while newcomers can only offer promises. Voters can see if their the taxes gone up unreasonably and who voted for that. They can also look outside their door and ask: Is the community any less safe? Are the roads in good condition? Do children have appropriate recreational facilities? Are parks well kept? Is the garbage picked up on time? Is traffic a problem? Can I ride my bicycle here? These are the things that matter to most voters.

Susan Sherring, writing in the Ottawa Sun earlier this year, put some common sense into the debate:

Yes, it’s darn hard to take on an incumbent — even a one that doesn’t excel. But that surely shouldn’t mean we kick someone out to make it easier for someone else, someone who might be half the talent of the ousted incumbent.

Municipal elections often have a fair share of single-issue candidates, or candidates who are angry about a particular council decision or activity. Residents who are not interested in these are equally uninterested in the candidate. If an incumbent speaks knowledgeably about taxes, debt, services and safety, it’s no wonder they get the attention  – and possibly the vote – not the one-trick candidates.

Maybe, too, incumbents simply have an advantage because voters recognize they have done a good job and the electorate is content with current policies and practices. Incumbents offer a comfort zone rather than rocking the boat with an unknown future.

“Three terms – 12 years’ service –should be enough,” writes Mr. Longo. Why, then, not set career limits for all forms of employment – say 12 years as the maximum one is allowed to practice law, dentistry, or medicine? Why are municipal politicians singled out?

Many municipal politicians continue to run for office because they care, because they still believe they can offer effective and useful service: not for imagined power or authority. Why punish and cast out the effective politicians for the sake of ideology?

Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion has been mayor continually since 1978: active, enthusiastic and passionately involved in her city even in her 90s. Under Mr. Longo’s dictates, her term would have ended in 1990. Mel Lastman served as mayor of North York from 1972 to 1997 and mayor of the amalgamated Toronto until 2000. Under Mr. Longo’s rules, he would had to step down in 1984. There are other long-serving examples of people who retained their effectiveness and energy through long careers in in municipal politics: Howard Moscoe (31 years), Victor Power, Glen Murray, Jack Layton and David Miller among them.

Columnist John Stewart wrote for the Mississauga News that,

Throwing someone out of office automatically, even if they are doing an exceptional job, seems foolhardy… Envy of excellence doesn’t seem like the best motivation for a measure that so seriously curtails the basic principle of free choice, which is severely compromised when a clearly qualified candidate, who has proven capable of handling the job, is not even allowed on the ballot.*****

Similarly, political pundit and blogger, Steven Lee, wrote for the Agenda on the TVO website that,

Legislative positions, even on city councils, are well served by members who are experienced. Governance, bureaucracy and politics can be confusing and opaque and there is great value in experienced hands guiding newer politicians, and the public, through issues.
Much maligned is the career politician, but we have seen time and time again how “outsiders” stumble and fail when inexperience and unfamiliarity with process leads to missteps.*****

Chris Fell, writing in the Meaford Express, in 2013, noted the effect of arbitrary term limits would not be equal in all municipalities:

Term limits might make sense for Toronto, but we’re not sure how they would help or improve the political situation in small rural communities.
We are concerned with the inherently undemocratic nature of a term limit. Why should voters be denied the opportunity to vote for a candidate because of an arbitrary term limit?
In addition, rural and local community councils are much smaller than what is found in larger areas. Most have only seven or nine positions. In this atmosphere experience and continuity do count. Voters often like to have a mix of experienced and new members on their local councils.
We have also observed in recent years that voters are more than willing to make wholesale changes to their local councils if things aren’t going right
Finally, in our view, councillors are already on a term limit. That limit is four years. After those four years a councillor must seek permission from voters to serve another term.

There are two key key points here. First is the difference between large urban municipalities and smaller urban and rural ones: the impact of such an arbitrary rule would be different according to the size and nature of the community. Municipalities in Ontario do not all share the same organizational and governance structures and what makes sense in one where power might be more concentrated in fewer hands might not make sense in another where it is shared.

Second, Fell speaks volumes when he says the incumbents – in fact all candidates – have to seek permission to serve. Sometimes forgiveness, too. The name recognition of an incumbent may be negative instead of positive, depending on how that person behaved or voted during his or her term.

Another blogger, commenting on Toronto’s upcoming municipal election, wrote that term limits paint all politicians with the same brush:

…It is driven by the desire to rid public office of all the deadwood deadweight representatives we perceive to be clogging up the system and can’t seem to boot from office any other way. Help us before we re-elect this terrible politician again! We’re painting all politicians with the same brush. It is a passive attempt to alleviate a dynamic problem of voter disengagement especially at the municipal level…
Term limiters seem to think that the only way in which we can get involved in the political process is to run for office. In the end, a politician, regardless how good or bad a one, is only one person. That leaves pretty much everybody else on the outside, waiting their turn to run for office…
Not everyone was cut out to run for public office. Even if they were, there’d never be room enough for all at the table short of rotating out on a weekly or monthly basis. Being a politician is only a small part of our democracy. Let’s stop trying to jam everybody into that tiny box and, instead, figure out ways to increase the size of that box of civic engagement.

Minister of Municipal Affairs, Jim Watson, told the Ottawa Sun he doesn’t like imposing term limits on municipal politicians and that they should determine themselves if they have outlived their political usefulness:

Instead of governments imposing term limits, municipal politicians should do that themselves, suggests Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson.
“If you spend too long in the job, you can get a little complacent, not as full of fresh ideas,” Watson said in an interview with the Sun…
“I don’t believe in imposing term limits, but it’s always healthy for councillors to impose their own limits,” Watson said, suggesting three four-year terms should be enough.
“Three terms is 12 years, if you haven’t been able to get through what you want in 12 years, maybe it is time to move on,” he said.

Voters can and will determine for themselves which of their candidates are engaged, active and represent their interests best. Voters can tell if candidates have a vision with which they agree. Democracy does not need any arbitrary, authoritarian rules to constrict it.

In the end, such term limits would mean, as Kate Daley writes, “political elites will be deciding to limit voters’ choices of who to have as their representative.” That is not democracy.


*USA Today: Term Limits in Mexico Don’t Serve People, Some Argue, by David Agren, Nov. 22, 2011 usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2011-11-17/mexico-elections-term-limits/51336674/1

**Local Government: Discretion and Accountability: A Diagnostic Framework for Local Governance, by Serdar Yilmaz, Yakup Beris, and Rodrigo Serrano-Berthet, The World Bank, Paper No. 113, July 2008, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTSOCIALDEVELOPMENT/Resources/244362-1193949504055/LocalGovernmentDiscretionandAccountability.pdf

***Jonathan Halliwell, The Agenda, TVO, January 2014. Video: theagenda.tvo.org/blog/agenda-blogs/term-limits-vs-self-regulation-ontario

****Why municipal term limits are a bad idea, Kate Daley, Jan. 2014

*****Term limits are no panacea for municipal malaise, by John Stewart, Mississauga News, Feb. 5, 2014 www.mississauga.com/blogs/post/4352063-blog-term-limits-are-no-panacea-for-municipal-malaise/

******Term Limits Won’t Fix Civic Life by Steven Lee, The Agenda, Jan. 2014 theagenda.tvo.org/blog/agenda-blogs/guest-post-term-limits-won-t-fix-civic-life

Several NDP candidates in the 2014 provincial election provided this cookie-cutter response to the question “Do you support term limits for municipal politicians? Why or why not?” on the Raise The Hammer forum:

Ontario’s NDP believes that measures are needed to enhance democratic participation and accountability at the municipal level. Too often, municipal politicians are beholden to big donors such as developers rather than the needs of their constituents. The NDP proposed stronger restrictions on municipal donations such as reducing donation amounts and banning loans to candidates. These were defeated by the McGuinty government.

Clearly the NDP have no idea what municipal campaign limits currently are. There are no “big donors” allowed. No contributor can finance more than a modest part of any campaign. Plus stringent record-keeping is already required to identify the source of every donation. The response shows a worrisome lack of understanding and appreciation of their municipal counterparts.

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