EDITORIAL- Term limits: Well-intentioned, but misguided

Outgoing at-large councilman Sam Yoon’s proposal to limit the tenure of any future mayor to two terms set off an interesting debate about governance in Boston. The vote took place yesterday, and the good news is the Council defeated the measure by a vote of 7 to 6. We agree with our neighborhood’s two district city councillors — Maureen Feeney and Charles Yancey — who have made it clear that they oppose Yoon’s measure. Both Councillor Yoon and Councillor Michael Flaherty voted for the limit, but neither man will remain in the Council in the new year.

Well-intentioned proponents who seek to put a check on supposedly impervious incumbents would do well to weigh the unintended consequences of term limits. It is true that our democracy is well served by a constant churn of new talent. But experience counts, too, and those who would arbitrarily force skilled elected leaders from office might very well come to regret such a decision. It is far better to give voters the choice on who should stay and who should go on a regular cycle.

Councillor Yancey, himself a 25-year veteran of the city council, spoke forcefully and effectively on this issue during a debate this week, warning that “the establishment of term limits tend to concentrate power within the bureaucracy,” especially because the bureaucrats don’t have term limits.

“There’s very little control, potentially, on long entrenched bureaucrats,” Yancey said, according to Universal Hub. Why would bureaucrats seek to increase performance when they know they can simply “wait out” a chief executive who is — unlike them— racing the term limit clock?

There can be other, less obvious pitfalls: Incumbents concerned with retaining their office are generally quite responsive to constituent complaints because they cannot safely disregard whole sections of the city without great peril to their own election day fortunes. The same cannot likely be said of a lame-duck, second-term mayor who can rest on his/her laurels after one re-election cycle. Politicians perform better when they know that they will be judged on their performance by the electorate.

Our city has fared well under the current, competitive system. It takes time for officials to become proficient in the work of city government. The stability afforded by the current mayoral administration’s longevity has resulted in many positive outcomes, including a top-bond rating and a solid record of crime reduction. The governance and management of a big American city like Boston is complex at best. There’s no room for on-the-job training. Our city’s officials are sworn-in at the beginning of January, when brutal cold spells or heavy snowstorms have been known to shut down neighborhood life and bring danger and harm to residents everywhere. At such times, experience counts.

There’s no question that there is room for considerable improvement, but there is also no evidence from Yoon or proponents that their term limit proposal is a solution. Let’s not tie our fortunes to the vague notion that term limit “reforms” would somehow bring us better results with an unnamed crop of theoretical candidates. The city’s electorate is the best gauge of whether or not change is needed at the top.
– Ed Forry