Wednesday, February 2, 2011

VOICES: Why term limits? (2001)

With less than 1,000 of the 46,000 signatures they'd need to put eight-year county commission term limits on the ballot, the Palm Beach County Term Limits Committee made their case for the measure in a 2001 issue of a local newsletter titled Voices of the Florida Taxpayer. The measure passed in November 2002 by 70 percent of the vote:


Since 1994, 50% of all potential commission races (7 out of 14) were uncontested; there were no elections. In 1998 and 2000, Karen Marcus, Carol Roberts, Mary McCarty, Warren Newell and Burt Aaronson went unopposed. In fact, Mary McCarty, who was elected in 1990, has never faced a meaningful opponent in a general election.

Clearly, the voters have little say over who their commissioners are or what they do. Term limits are needed to rejuvenate the election process by 1) requiring elections at least every eight years (imagine that!) and 2) severing the strong tie between incumbent commissioners and local special interests.

It may seem odd at first that there wouldn’t already be far more competition for a job as commissioner, which pays $78,000 annually and includes numerous perks. But there are three main reasons why potential challengers shy away.

• The first is the simple power of the incumbency. The incumbent commissioner generally has much better name recognition and is owed favors from all manner of special interests and individuals who have benefited from their votes.

As Charles Lewis director of the Center for Public Integrity told the Palm Beach Post last year: "Generally, in more than 90 percent of elections, the incumbent wins. That works for county commissioners as well as governors and senators."

• Another major reason is money. The incumbents traditionally raise large amounts of money early in the race from developers, and other businesses and individuals. For one example, in 2000, contribution king Burt Aaronson raised over $115,000 in an election in which he had no opponent. In fact, this action insured he had no opponents! Unopposed commissioners Karen Marcus and Warren Newell both raised about $60,000 each as well.

• A third reason that incumbents nearly always win is that special interests – who benefit directly and substantially from commission votes – are highly organized and follow the commission closely. The mass of voters are not so attentive as the effects of the commission’s decisions on them is more diffuse. Therefore, interests are willing to spend amounts of time and money that ordinary citizens are not and, in many cases, cannot.

Taken together, incumbency seems to mean: "Once you’re in, you’re in for good." Recent history bears this out.

It wasn’t always so. Back when it simple and inexpensive to run for office, county commission races were nearly always contested. In fact, according to the Palm Beach Post, between 1962 and 1992 no commission races went unopposed. This is the political vitality that Palm Beach County needs to recapture.

"We already have term limits…they’re called elections!"

Oh really? Since 1994, 7 of the 14 potential races went unopposed – that means no elections were held. Term limits would require that voters weigh in – at least every eight years — on who represents them.

Dist. / Commissioner / Elected / Term / Last Gen. Election

1 Karen T. Marcus 1984 5th Term Unopposed in 2000
2 Carol Roberts 1986 4th Term Unopposed in 1998
3 Mary McCarty 1990 3rd Term Unopposed in 1998
4 Burt Aaronson 1992 3rd Term Unopposed in 2000
5 Warren Newell 1992 3rd Term Unopposed in 2000
6 Tony Masilotti 1998 1st Term Opposed in 1998
7 Addie L. Greene 2000 1st Term Unopposed in 2000

No comments:

Post a Comment