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Supporters Hope Term Limits for Santa Monica Council is Idea 'Whose Time Has Come'

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 7, 2018 -- Back in 2002, reformers took on the status quo at Santa Monica’s City Hall with a ballot measure which, among other especially divisive proposals, sought term limits for a City Council where turnover was rare.

Measure HH on the November 5 ballot that year was routed 64 percent to 36 percent at the polls. Now, backers of term-limits for the council’s seven members are trying to put the issue before voters during the General Election this fall -- and hoping the past will not haunt them.

“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” said Mary Marlow, head of the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a City government watchdog group.

Marlow and Council Member Sue Himmelrich, the council’s newest member, filed notice with the City Clerk at the end of January of the intent to gather signatures to put a term-limits measure on this fall’s ballot ("Proposed Ballot Measure Calls for Term Limits for Santa Monica Council Members," February 1, 2018).

Marlow said the circumstances this time around are better for a terms-limit measure.

In 2002, Measure HH included a bracing number of big changes for governance at City Hall, some of which prompted a bitter counter-offensive by established powers at, or aligned with, City Hall, and ended up overshadowing the notion of term limits, Marlow said.

Had the sweeping measure been successful at the polls, it would have created a new position of an elected mayor. Then, as now, the position of mayor is shuffled among council members and is mainly a ceremonial post.

Establishing by-district voting for council members, instead of at-large voting was also part of Measure HH.

It sought to newly create seven districts, and a procedure for redefining individual districts in the future and to require a majority vote for council members and the new position of an elected mayor.

HH also included a concomitant requirement for primary elections in Spring and runoff elections in November when necessary, and a redefinition of the residency requirements for mayor and council members.

The job of City Attorney would also have become an elected position, not one which is appointed by the council, as is the case now.

In the Measure HH mix was limiting the mayor and council members to no more than two consecutive four-year terms.

Marlow said it is hard to gauge just how much support existed then for term limits.

“It was lost somewhat in scuffle” over the other changes sought by Measure HH, Marlow said.

Under the Marlow-Himmelrich proposal, council members would be limited to three four-years terms. It would go into effect for council elections after this November.

It does not extend to either the Board of Education for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District or the trustees for Santa Monica College.

Over the years, term limits have spread throughout California at all levels of elective government.

California has established term limits for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Attorney General, Controller, Secretary of State, Insurance Commissioner and Superintendent of Public Institution, as well as its Senate and Assembly legislators.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also has term limits. So do a wide variety of city councils, including those for Los Angeles, Culver City, West Hollywood and Torrance, Marlow said.

“I’d say terms limits are very popular,” she said.

Himmelrich expressed support for term limits when she first ran for the council in 2014. She is up for re-election to a second four-year term in November.

The other two council members up for re-election -- Kevin McKeown and Pam O’Connor -- do not favor limiting terms, a practice which detractors say robs government of the expertise long-time elected officials offer.

O’Connor has been a council member since 1994 and McKeown since 1998.


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