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Are term limits really a good idea?

December 18, 2010

By THOMAS JENKINS

The idea of term limits at the city level is much like religion or national politics, it makes for heated discussion and someone almost always walks away with their feelings hurt.

So is the case as the Big Spring City Council sets out to put the use of term limits for the mayor and council members' seats before voters during the May municipal election, the brain child of newly-elected Mayor Tommy Duncan.

The first reading of the ballot language narrowly passed Tuesday night on a 4-3 vote. Council members Manuel Ramirez Jr. (District 2), Joann Staulcup (District 3) and Gloria McDonald (District 4) voted against sending the matter to the voters, while Duncan, newly-elected Councilman Craig Olson (District 5), Councilman Terry Hansen (District 6) and Councilwoman Stephanie Horton (District 1) voted to send it to an election.

Now, bear in mind the council was not voting on whether term limits should or shouldn't be enacted. Instead, it was voting on whether or not the issue should go before the voters in May. Also, the matter will have to pass a second reading in January before we'll know for sure if it will be on the ballot.

Those issues aside, are term limits a good idea for city government?

Duncan has compared the matter to current two-term limits in place for the U.S. presidency, saying if it's good for that office, it will certainly be good for the city of Big Spring. In Duncan's eyes, the term limits will give more people the opportunity to serve the city without having to unseat long term, entrenched “career politicians.”

On the other side of the fence, opposition to the limits have called the issue an insult to the intelligence of voters because it could prevent them from voting for the candidate they feel is best for the job.

Both sides have a legitimate argument, mind you, but to get at the heart of the issue, you have to compare oranges to oranges, not oranges to Nicauraugan moon fruit.

First of all, I'm no fan of career politicians myself. However, it's hard to lump people like Horton, who has served on the city council since I moved to Big Spring in 1997, in with the likes of Strom Thurmond, who firmly wedged himself in South Carolina politics for more than 50 years.

While Thurmond, along with a whole string of Texas career politicians, enjoyed a never ending stream campaign contributions, high-dollar escapades, private jets and other unmentionables, I have yet to see Horton or any other council member or mayor arrive to the council chambers in a limousine.

What do local politicians — to be honest, I'm almost hesitant to call them politicians — get from their service? There's no big pay day waiting for them. No, it's simply the knowledge they are doing their best to make Big Spring a better place to work and live. So let's go ahead and dispose of the career politician notion.

Are term limits an insult to Big Spring voters?

Yes, I believe they are.

The idea behind term limits is to keep entrenched mayors and council members from holding on to their seats with nothing more than incumbency. It's a well known fact it's much harder to unseat an incumbent candidate than a first-time or non-seated candidate.

However, voters proved unequivocally in May 2010 that incumbents can be voted out, as long time mayor Russ McEwen was unseated by Duncan. In fact, in the November election, Howard County voters nixed two long time commissioners in favor of political newcomers. Yet another notion we can confidently set aside.

Term limits for the U.S. presidency were enacted in 1947 in an effort to keep the country from backsliding into a monarchal government. I have a really hard time seeing the office of mayor or city council member developing into a monarchy in Big Spring, especially if those officials do anything to anger voters.

Simply put, term limits can — and if enacted, will — prevent local voters from casting their ballots for the candidate they feel can best represent them. It also creates an environment where someone that isn't necessarily mentally equipped to deal with the office can be elected simply because he or she is the only candidate running.

Those of you who have followed elections here in Big Spring and Howard County know exactly what — and who — I'm talking about.

Term limits are a precautionary measure. However, it doesn't take long to see the situation they look to avoid doesn't necessarily apply to the local level of government. Having covered the political scene in Big Spring and the surrounding area since 1997, I have yet to see a situation where term limits would have been a virtue.

Should the use of term limits go to the voters in May? If it gets local residents to get off their rears and take part in the democratic process, sure, why not?

However, someone wiser than myself once told me, “Don't ask the question if you can't handle the answer.”

The answer, in this case, could be one that deals a major blow to the rights of voters in Big Spring, well-informed and the unimaginably misled alike.

Contact Staff Writer Thomas Jenkins at 263-7331 ext. 232 or by e-mail at citydesk@bigspringherald.com

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