The subject keeps coming up, though it never seems to get anywhere.
As the inauguration of Houston’s elected leaders begins Thursday morning, supporters and spectators gathered at the Wortham Center downtown will see six new City Council members walk across the stage.
Observers at the ceremony two years ago saw seven new members sworn in, and those present two years before that saw five new faces cross the stage. That’s 18 position turnovers in four years around a horseshoe that seats 17, including the mayor, as Councilman C.O. Bradford pointed out at the council’s final meeting of the year two weeks ago.
With this churn in mind, Mayor Annise Parker, Bradford and others are calling for changes to the city’s term limits structure, which allows three two-year terms for the mayor, city controller and council members.
“That’s simply too frequent. When I came to council, there were council members in the process of leaving … and they were just well-seasoned, they were just at the point where they were really ready to dig in and serve the city,” said Bradford, who is starting his third and final term. “As we go forward in efforts to move our city forward, look at 18 turnovers in a four-year period and look at the challenge that presents.”
Parker, herself term-limited out of office at the end of 2016, said she will ask council to present voters with a shift to two four-year terms, adding that any proposal will not apply to her.
We all know how I feel about term limits, right? OK, with that out of the way, let me say that I don’t care for four-year terms on Council. For those of you who think Council will be a better place minus Helena Brown and/or Andrew Burks, they would both be beginning the second half of their first term if we had four-year terms in place now. I think having two year terms helps keep Council members accountable, and better enables us to correct mistakes in a timely fashion as needed. I understand that many Council members dislike having to transition into campaign mode so soon after being elected, and I get that the grind of fundraising sucks. That’s why I believe a better solution to address these issues is changing the nature of our system of financing campaigns. To my mind, if we can level the playing field between incumbents and challengers, we can better address the problem that term limits was supposed to solve. I’m very open to the idea of publicly financing campaigns, at least at the municipal level to begin with. There are big problems to solve in such a system, how to finance it and how to regulate private contributions in a constitutional way being the two main ones, but I see it as a worthwhile goal that actually has a chance of solving the underlying problem. You could take the approach that no one should be allowed to run for re-election, but that still doesn’t address the question of how campaigns are financed, and I personally see value in giving good public servants a chance to keep doing what they’re good at doing. All I ask about the forthcoming debate over our current and highly sub-optimal term limits system is that we start by pledging to review the whole thing and to consider options that have been left out of previous discussions. We’ll see if this effort makes it any farther than the last one did.