Sunday, October 5, 2008

Countering Mayor’s Bid With a Bill to Put Term Limits in the Voters’ Hands

Published: October 4, 2008

In a signal of the coming political fight over Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to seek another four years in office, two City Council members said on Saturday that they would introduce legislation that would allow voters rather than the City Council to decide whether to extend term limits.

Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times

Representative Anthony D. Weiner, with Bill de Blasio and Letitia James of the City Council, spoke against the mayor's plan.

City Council members Bill de Blasio and Letitia James, both Brooklyn Democrats, say they intend to introduce a bill on Tuesday calling for a citywide referendum to be held in the spring.

“Voters have decided to enact and uphold term limits; they voted on it twice,” Ms. James said at a news conference outside City Hall. “The mayor is blatantly trying to cut them out of the discussion, trying to do an end run around democracy.”

She added that there is “still time to do it the right way, through a referendum.”

The proposal will be submitted on the same day as legislation, supported by Mayor Bloomberg, is expected to be introduced that would modify term limits through a Council vote. The proposal would allow dozens of elected officials to serve three four-year terms instead of the current two.

For the 51-member Council, both proposals are politically risky. The mayor’s bill would upend a law that voters approved in 1993 and again in 1996, leaving the lawmakers who side with him to answer to their constituents when they face their own re-elections.

But Mr. de Blasio’s and Ms. James’s bill faces an even bigger hurdle, with two-thirds of the Council set to lose their jobs next year if term limits are not extended. A New York Times survey of City Council members in early September found that the majority favored changing the law.

It is also uncertain what support the proposal would receive from Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, a close ally of the mayor. Ms. Quinn said last December that she opposed extending term limits, but has not said how she would vote on any of the latest proposals.

Last week, she said that if the Council voted to add another term, she would run for a third term in the Council rather than pursue an expected bid for mayor.

The proposal by Mr. de Blasio and Ms. James would establish a commission to draft a change to the City Charter to allow for a third four-year term. As part of the process, the commission would hold hearings in each of the five boroughs before placing the proposed changes on the ballot in the spring.

Mr. de Blasio and Ms. James said that would give voters ample time to review the changes before deciding for themselves. A more expansive bill that would require all changes to term limits to be done through referendum is also expected to be introduced on Tuesday, said Councilman David I. Weprin, the bill’s sponsor.

The Bloomberg administration says using a special election to change term limits would be legally problematic. Michael Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, said that because special elections tend to draw so few voters, “there’s a serious question” of whether the process would stand the scrutiny of the Department of Justice, which must approve all changes to the city’s election procedure under a longstanding civil rights provision.

Jerry H. Goldfeder, a prominent election lawyer, disagreed.

“There’s no reason to think the Justice Department would be less favorably inclined were term limits changed by several hundred thousand people in a special election than if they were changed by 51 council members,” he said.

Either way, Mr. de Blasio said there’s no reason why a special election on such an important issue would attract a low turnout.

The committee that would first have to approve either piece of legislation is run by Councilman Simcha Felder, one of the mayor’s closest allies in the Council and the single biggest recipient of mayoral discretionary funds since 2003.

Mr. de Blasio and Ms. James were joined on Saturday by Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a candidate for mayor.

“There is a right way and there is a wrong way to alter term limits,” Mr. Weiner said. “What the mayor proposed a couple of days ago is the wrong way. What council members James and de Blasio have proposed is the right way.”

Mr. Weiner echoed those remarks later Saturday at a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. He was joined by another mayoral hopeful, City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr.

“It should not be about any one person, the mayor or me or anybody else,” Mr. Thompson said at the forum, which was held at a Midtown hotel. “It should be about the people of this city and what they think, and we should not move forward without going back and asking the people what they want to do with term limits.”

Ms. Quinn was also invited to Mr. Sharpton’s forum but bowed out, her spokesman said, because she did not want to cloud the term limits issue.

Mr. Sharpton, who has had a cordial relationship with Mr. Bloomberg, said his group had not decided its position. That was one reason, he said, that he invited the candidates to share their opinions.

“This is a real issue, a voting rights issue,” Mr. Sharpton said, “and how it happens and when it happens is a serious concern.”

Rebecca White contributed reporting.

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