Let’s cut to the chase. Vote “no” on the Open Boulder initiative to impose term limits on Boulder City Council members if it makes the ballot. Better yet, keep it off the ballot by declining to sign the petition. There is no statistical need for such a change, as this piece will clearly establish. But even worse—it’s likely to keep people with valuable experience from serving the citizens of Boulder at a bargain-basement price.
I recently re-read the May 9 Daily Camera story linked above, and came across one line that set off red flags and questions in my mind. It said one of Open Boulder’s stated goals was “reform of the city’s governance structure.” So, here’s an introductory question—would this initiative benefit Boulder, or would it benefit Open Boulder? Read on, and I believe the following will at least show there’s nothing in it for the city.
By the Numbers: There’s No Problem
With a little recent history first, it seems obvious that Boulder has no current problem getting new candidates (a.k.a. “fresh blood”) elected:
- Of the five people who won council seats in 2015, three of them (60%) were first-time candidates (Yates, Brockett, Burton).
- The top vote-getters in the last three council elections were all first-time candidates (Jones 2011, Young 2013, Yates 2015).
- In 2015, an incumbent lost (Plass), as did a former council member (Carlisle).
- Of the five people who won council seats in 2013, three of them were first-time candidates (Young, Weaver, Shoemaker).
- Boulder’s held two special council elections, and first-time candidates won both of them (Ageton 2005, Wilson 2007). Both Ageton and Wilson were also the top vote-getters in their ensuing November general elections, with less than a full year of service under their belts.
Do we have a short-term problem electing new members to council? Heck, no. But through a little research, I found that there doesn’t seem to be a long-term problem either. I obtained lists of council members going back to the 1960s, and found that the average term length was about 5.84 years for all candidates elected for the first time in 1967 or later. This is certainly not a shocking figure, given that many members are elected to 4-year terms in the first place. There’s a list of candidates, years in office, and an explanation of my methodology after the end of this piece, but here are a couple of interesting points to consider:
- Only 6 people over the course of nearly 50 years served more than the 12 years called out in the proposed initiative (Correll, Jourgensen, Greenlee, Havlick, Appelbaum, Morzel). That’s about 8.4% of the 71 different council members who were first elected in 1967 or later.
- Only 2 of the 6 long-timers were elected to their first term in 1987 or later (Appelbaum, Morzel), with 0 elected to their first term after 1995.*
- 9 of the 68 members (not counting the 3 first elected in 2015) served for only 2 years or less. Also, two served for about 3 years.
- 21 of the 65 members (not counting the 6 first elected in 2013 or 2015) served for only 4 years. So, 32 of these 65 served 4 years or less, or slightly less than half.
To me, the above information shoots holes in any argument saying we need fresh blood on council, at least as a general across-the-board rule. The vast majority of people don’t stay on council for more than two terms, and there are reasons. They are paid only a meager stipend, which means members who haven’t retired could very well sacrifice earning potential (or sleep) by serving. Also, they typically spend a lot of hours on the job, including late evenings, which means they won’t have as much time for family or other pursuits.
Term Limits: Mixed Results, No Panacea, No Need
I read a comment from Andy Schultheiss (council member 2003-07 and Open Boulder executive director) in the Camera, saying passing this initiative would be in the name of “good governance.” I can’t buy it. There is no evidence that a generic first-time elected official does a better job than one with experience. I’ve had roughly 15 years of direct experience with state and local government, and I’ve seen the amount of knowledge and perspective an elected official must gain to make quality decisions. And if elected officials don’t have personal knowledge or experience, they can be at the mercy of special interest groups, staff, or lobbyists if they need information. That’s not good.
I watched on May 11 as 9 sitting Colorado state senators ended their last legislative session—8 due to term limits. When their terms are completed in January, the Senate will have lost two Senate Presidents, two Majority Leaders, two chairs of the Joint Budget Committee, about 100 years of Capitol experience, and untold deep expertise in key topics determining how we run the state. This is not exactly scientific, but a person on Twitter called it a “brain drain” like he had never seen, echoing what many followers of Capitol affairs thought when considering the quality of people just going away.
At about this time, I first learned of Open Boulder’s proposed initiative. The confluence of the initiative and the loss of experience in the Senate piqued my interest. I started looking through council terms of service, but also did some reading about term limits in general and was reminded that it was a major component of arch-conservative Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America. It was also interesting to once again read position papers in favor of term limits from right-wing sources such as the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation. I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this really the direction Boulder wants to follow?”
Now, some of the 1990s positions pertain to Congress, and it’s completely possible for people (conservative, liberal, all others) to differentiate support for term limits based on the type of office. But one of the key common points among term limit supporters of the 1990s was a desire to prevent people from becoming and staying professional politicians. This is simply not a problem for Boulder City Council, whose members serve part-time for minimal money, and will leave office if better opportunities present themselves.
And since a 1990s term limit movement swept the nation, many people have realized the mixed results and unintended consequences of arbitrary limits. There’s even a book called “The Failure of Term Limits in Florida,” which chronicled some of the same obvious pitfalls I’ve mentioned—loss of institutional knowledge, influence shifting away from legislators and toward lobbyists, and more. One simple quote from the book speaks volumes: “Term limits have had the devastating effect of weakening the Legislature as an institution.”
On May 11, I heard at least three Republican state senators say Sen. Pat Steadman’s departure made them question the value of term limits. Of course, Boulder County voters have lengthened term limits on certain county elected positions in recent years, recognizing the values of continuity and professional experience. For Boulder City Council, there’s no statistical problem and no clear benefit to term limits. Why do it?
Back to Boulder
For me, a Boulder citizen and voter, my voting decision often boils down to experience. I might not want all 9 council members to be long-timers, but I would like the right to vote for an experienced candidate if I believe they’ve served the community well. And if they haven’t served well or betrayed my trust, I will gladly vote against them regardless of years of service. Voters can find tons of information about candidates through a variety of sources, and I believe citizens of a well-educated community like Boulder are able to make decisions based on the issues, not just name recognition or talking points.
So, about the talking points…the pro-term limit campaign is saying the initiative is not about current members. (For the record, Morzel and Appelbaum are the only two current long-timers, and Appelbaum told the Camera in May he didn’t intend to run again.) I can’t disprove this, but I can’t buy it either since there have been exactly zero other members first elected in the last two decades with such long-term service. Plus, both Morzel and Appelbaum have been defeated in special elections, and both finished only several hundred votes in front of first-time candidates in their last election. In other words, it’s proven possible to defeat long-timers at the ballot box, without changing the rules. And if it’s really about getting rid of PLAN-Boulder candidates or people with similar political leanings, PLAN-Boulder’s slate did not do well in 2015, so once again it’s proven possible to defeat them in an election—without changing the rules.
In conclusion, I believe there has to be a compelling reason to make changes like this initiative proposes. But the Boulder City Council numbers simply don’t show a need to take such an action, and I can’t accept that “less experience” is somehow preferable to “more.” I’m concerned because the next reasons that come to my mind are ideology or political dominance—and again I’m drawn to the line from the May Daily Camera story: “Open Boulder was founded about a year and a half ago, with one of its stated goals being reform of the city’s governance structure.” Sorry, as a Boulder citizen I just don’t recall asking an unelected body to do this. “Reform” seems like something that ought to be hashed out in public process, not decided through a “yes-no” down-ballot initiative in a Presidential/Senatorial election year with other complex statewide initiatives for voters to consider.
Boulder’s been a wildly successful city for decades, at least long before a year and a half ago, and a lot of this success was due to public servants and officials of the past. Do your own homework, but I will stick with my contention that this initiative won’t do anything toward reforming our governance structure, let alone do anything to improve the city. Again, vote “no,” or “decline to sign” if you’re approached with a term limit petition.
*Dates in this bullet reflect corrections made after the post was first published.
- I obtained a list of council members from 1966 to 2003 from Carnegie Library, and found who served in 2003 or later through online election records and Google searches.
- I decided to use only members elected for their first term in 1967 or later. This was to avoid the need to research when those who served in 1966 were first elected. If someone else wants to do the work, be my guest!
- I used only whole years or half-years for length of service for simplicity, even though some appointments or special elections weren’t in November or at exactly midway through a given year. If someone wants to refine these numbers further, again be my guest.
- I rounded the current members up to the nearest year (i.e. those who have only been on council since November were rounded up to 1 year).
- I didn’t round the current members up to the length of their elected term because our history has included resignations, scandals, a recall, and even a passing among sitting council members. Obviously, rounding up to the elected term would kick the average up slightly, but I’m not willing to assume longer-term continued service.
- Beyond the above points, coming up with averages was simple addition and division.
Council Members Elected or Appointed to First Terms Since 1967
|Karen M. Paget||71-75||4|
|Walter V. Slack||73-75||2|
|Tim Fuller||71-74||3||Recalled 74|
|J. Wayne Hutchens||75-81||6|
|Linda Jourgensen||77-90||12.5||Left April 90|
|George Boland||74-81||7||Replaced Fuller|
|Homer Page||81-88||7||Left Jan. 89|
|Leslie Durgin||89-97||9||Apptd. Jan. 89|
|Jim Topping||90-91||1.5||Apptd. April 90|
|Steve Pomerance||85-93, 95-97||10|
|Matt Appelbaum||87-95, 07-16||17|
|Will Toor||97-05||7.5||Left March 05|
|Lisa Morzel||95-03, 07-16||17|
|Suzy Ageton||05-13||8.5||Special March 05|