Bolton: Blythewood council should let voters determine term limits

Associate EditorApril 2, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

EVEN IF cities and counties were allowed to implement term limits — they’re not — the Blythewood Town Council has a poor argument for enacting them given the tremendous turnover the municipality has seen in recent years.

The council has had two major overhauls since 2011. There is no one remaining on the council from 2011, and only one remains from 2012: Mayor Mike Ross, who was elected in 2012 when voters ousted one-term Mayor Keith Bailey.

So it’s hard for me to understand why Councilman Bob Massa, elected last year over an incumbent, saw the need to infringe upon voters’ rights within our system of representative democracy, declaring that limiting terms “freshens the pot” and makes way for new ideas.

That’s one of the arguments people have used for years in pushing for term limits. They also say they fear that long-serving elected officials will get too comfortable or complacent or too drunk on power.

I understand their concerns and obviously have seen some examples of the very thing they fear.

But arbitrary term limits are never a good idea. We have term limits, and they rest in the hands of voters, who decide who will represent them and how long.

Many people jumped on the term-limits bandwagon because of what they perceived as a “corrupt” Washington that had created power-hungry politicians who ignore the wishes of those who elected them.

Those who disagree with the way elected officials are doing their job need to run for office or recruit candidates capable of making compelling arguments — and offering fresh ideas — that appeal to voters.

The last thing we should do is legislate change for the sake of change. The unintended consequences could be great. It could create a leadership and experience vacuum that could lead to stagnation and even a series of bad decisions that reverse progress.

And let’s be real. Don’t we want good, smart people with experience and institutional knowledge making laws and shaping policy that affect our today and tomorrow? Where do they get that experience if they don’t spend some amount of time in office learning?

Most people who have served in public office will tell you — if they’re honest — that it takes a full term or longer just to figure out the lawmaking and governing process. Some pick things up sooner than others, of course, but it’s naive to think that someone is going to walk into office and from day one begin proposing and getting smart laws passed and implementing sound policies. There’s a learning curve.

The law Blythewood Town Council passed on Monday limits the mayor and four council members each to two consecutive terms — eight years — in office. Interestingly, the close 3-2 vote was cast by a council whose longest-serving member, the mayor, took office roughly two years ago. By the way, Mayor Ross voted in opposition.

Sending representatives home after two terms without an opportunity to seek re-election strips voters of the right to keep good, knowledgeable, proven leaders in office to ensure consistent and quality governance. Are there times when new blood is needed? Absolutely. And it’s up to voters to decide that.

Can — and do — some bad elected officials get into office and overstay their welcome? Yes. But that’s all part of representative democracy: We trust voters to decide and trust that those elected will serve well. The beauty of it is that when that doesn’t happen, the people get another opportunity at the next election.

I’m sure Mr. Massa and Councilman Tom Utroska mean well. The two men said that as they campaigned for office last fall, voters kept bringing up term limits. The men, who defeated incumbents, ran as a team and pledged to pursue term limits.

But they did so despite four legal opinions over the years — the latest was written in 2010 — from the S.C. attorney general’s office stating that only the General Assembly has the authority to pass a law limiting council members’ terms. While some argue that an attorney general’s opinion is just another bit of legal advice, seasoned elected officials would know, or at least should know, better. The attorney general upholds and defends the law on behalf of the state, and whoever the attorney general, that office has an excellent track record when its opinions are tested in the courts. Instead of pooh-poohing an opinion from the office, it’s best to seek an update or a legislative change.

My guess is that if a voter challenges the new local law in court, it won’t stand. But a citizen shouldn’t have to file a lawsuit to get the council to see the folly in this and reverse its vote.

Considering the way this matter has been handled by newcomers on Blythewood’s council, you’ve got to wonder if they would have done the same if they had served for some time in office.

If you asked the typical citizen to name elected officials as examples of why we need term limits, they wouldn’t come up with many. For the most part, people in South Carolina think about the likes of Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings because they held office so long. And, yes, there are those in the Legislature, particularly with their safe districts due to the way single-member districts are structured, whose names might come up.

But even then, you’ll mostly hear complaints about the person’s party or whether the voter agrees with their ideology. But what matters most is if they’re effective at helping improve people’s lives. Oftentimes, long-serving officials are among the most effective in getting things done, although there are those who stay far longer than they should.

It’s important to note that when we talk about the Legislature or local government, we’re not talking about full-time or career politicians; these folks have to have other careers to take care of their families and pay the bills.

On the whole, we’re not talking about politicians who are wielding great power and thumbing their noses at the electorate. What’s the chance of a mayor or council member in Blythewood or any city or town in our state holding office for dozens of years with that kind of attitude?

Blythewood voters know what to do in those instances. They’ve already proven that they will make a change when it suits them. And council members shouldn’t rob them of that right.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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