John Colson: Hit and Run
July 31, 2009
I’m a little confused, so please bear with me.
Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Kay-Clapper has called for the elimination of term limits on holding a seat on the commission, arguing that our nation, states, counties and municipalities already have an effective form of limiting the terms of our elected leaders – elections themselves. It is up to the people to decide when to dump an elected official out of office, she has said.
But the people already have decided, and not that long ago. First the county’s charter commission recommended that county commissioners be limited to three terms, which was an increase from the previous limit of two terms. Then the voters ratified that recommendation, and now commissioners serve for three terms.
That seems simple enough, right?
Well, Clapper sees it differently, and I have to admit that I once did, too. Back in the 1990s, when Republicans were desperate to wrest control of Congress away from the Democrats, debates about term limits were all the rage.
At that time, I viewed the move as sheer politics, an effort by an anti-democratic minority of self-interested right-wingers to put themselves in power. There was a provision for term limits on federal legislators in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract On America” – er, wait, “Contract With America” (sorry about that) – but the idea died for lack of any support among, well, the legislators themselves. Especially after the Republicans won their coveted majority in Congress in 1994.
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On the other hand, a little bit of research shows that term limits go back to the times of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of preventing careerism and corruption among those chosen to run nations, states, towns and such. The idea was to keep politicians honest, remove any temptation for the establishment of dynasties, and limit the opportunities for corruption that inescapably come with long service in a governmental position.
Term limits also offer the delicious opportunity for introducing new blood, fresh meat, or whichever descriptive term you prefer, into the political equation. Leave someone in office for too long, you get used to having their name up there and, unless they start skimming from the public treasury, become wanton sex fiends or drug addicts, or commit some other social faux-pas, there they stay.
Of course, in order to stay at the top of that particular heap, you’ve got to develop a talent for keeping everybody happy, which means you tend to become rather boring in a political sense. You pick your battles carefully, don’t take on anything that is edgy or too far-out for mainstream tastes, and you rest on your laurels. There are exceptions to this kind of behavior, and we’ve had a few of them in the valley over time, but by and large these are rules to survive by and they are followed closely.
You also tend to begin believing your own mythology, and start thinking the voters love you so much they’d never kick you out of office, which can be a fatal self-delusion.
As I mentioned at the outset, I’m confused about this one. On the one hand, I appreciate the continued service of someone who is generally in line with my way of thinking, who does a good job with the public purse strings and keeps the welfare of the community at large uppermost in his or her mind. On the other hand, too many elected office holders become petty tyrants and despots, calcified in their thinking and corrupt in their practices, at worst, or simply ineffective because their chief concern is staying in office rather than finding solutions to the puzzles presented to them. In the end, I have to come down on the side of keeping the term limits imposed by the voters, as long as the voters themselves make no move to change things.
As for Mrs. Clapper, I’d say she should back away from this useless drive to enshrine herself in office, and get back to the business at hand. She’s done a generally good job so far, but now it’s time for a change, and any further protestations would not only be unseemly, they may be downright dangerous.