Councilman At-Large Allan Domb caused a stir last week when he introduced legislation to set up a referendum asking voters whether City Council members should be limited to three four-year terms.
Some labeled the move a political stunt, unlikely to pass and conveniently timed ahead of May’s municipal primaries. Others praised it as a step in the right direction.
Domb, a Democrat in his first term, said he and his staff have been researching the idea for the last year or two. Out of the nation’s 10 largest cities, only Philadelphia and Chicago do not have term limits for council, he said.
“Ben Franklin said that people in elected office should not get paid and they should serve a small amount of time to give back to the communities they live in, and not (have) a career of politics,” Domb told the Times.
The term limit restriction “brings in fresh ideas, increases diversity in candidates and creates a more engaging democratic process for the voters and candidates,” he added. “It also will hold officials accountable.”
Domb’s legislation, which was introduced Thursday, calls for a question about term limits to be placed on the May 21 primary ballot. If approved by voters, the change would go into effect starting in 2020, and it includes a grandfather clause, so no current council members would be affected.
The proposal is expected to face stiff opposition and already has been criticized by Council’s longest-serving member, Brian O’Neill, of the 10th District.
“It’s a democratic system,” O’Neill said. “You have elections. Voters decide. People that want term limits don’t think voters are smart enough to pick the right people, and it’s a shame because it’s anti-democratic and, I think, anti-American.”
If term limits were in place when O’Neill was first elected, he would have had to clean out his City Hall office in 1991. He has been a councilman for almost 40 years.
O’Neill, as he pointed out, is a bit of an outlier on the current council.
Jannie Blackwell has been in office for 27 years, and Council President Darrell Clarke has served 20 years. However, there are five council members who are nearing the end of their first term — Cherelle Parker, Helen Gym, Derek Green, Al Taubenberger and Domb.
Newcomers will also soon replace Blondell Reynolds Brown and Bill Greenlee, who are retiring from their at-large posts at the end of the year.
“We really don’t have an issue now,” O’Neill said. “It’s a solution in search of a problem because there’s no problem to solve at this point. It’s been solved on its own by the democratic process.”
Moreover, O’Neill accused Domb of “grandstanding.”
“I don’t think it has a chance of passing,” he added. “It’s wasting a lot of people’s time.”
Domb expressed nothing but admiration for the 10-term councilman.
“I wish we had term limits for (O’Neill), and I’ll tell you why: He could have been a great mayor for this city,” Domb said. “He’s a talented guy. Councilman O’Neill is the exemption to the rule.”
Domb argued term limits would push good and popular Council members to seek higher office.
The term limit legislation does have some support in City Hall. It was co-sponsored by Council members Gym and Mark Squilla, and Domb also appears to have an ally in Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon.
“Councilman Henon fully supports any legislation put forth to our community members to vote on,” Henon spokeswoman Alicia Stavitzski said in an email. “We live in a democracy, and voters will choose the amount of years Councilmembers should serve in office.”
Henon, who is facing criminal charges as part of the federal indictment involving electricians’ union Local 98, has said he will run for a third term.
Domb’s legislation was referred to committee. He said the goal now is to get a hearing on the issue. Other reform-minded bills he has introduced haven’t even gotten that far, Domb said.
“At a minimum, it is something we should discuss and debate and put it out there as a question to those running whether or not they feel term limits are important,” he said. ••