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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Term limits should be kept for council

By David Shapiro

Unless O'ahu voters want to effectively anoint incumbent City Council members to office for life, they should think twice before approving a proposed City Charter amendment on the November ballot to end or extend council term limits.

Normally, I'm leery of measures such as term limits and resign-to-run laws that constrict voters' choices.

But in council elections, there's been so little competition against incumbents that the seats pried open every eight years by term limits are the only times voters get meaningful choices in selecting leaders to set city policy.

This year, incumbents Donovan dela Cruz and Charles Djou were re-elected unopposed, while Rod Tam and Gary Okino retained their seats in the Sept. 23 primary election with runaway victories over little-known and under-financed opponents.

It was the same story two years ago, when incumbents Ann Kobayashi and Nestor Garcia returned unopposed, and fellow incumbents Romy Cachola and Barbara Marshall had little trouble dispatching relatively token opposition in the primary election.

The only competitive contest in 2004 was for the open seat with no incumbent in the West O'ahu district, which drew five candidates in a race ultimately won by Todd Apo in a general election runoff.

With this history, there is no reason to think that incumbents won't be able to serve for as long as they please often running uncontested if voters do away with term limits by approving Charter Question 1 in the general election November 7.

This could be dangerous when you consider that the previous City Council saw two members Andy Mirikitani and Rene Mansho go to prison for corruption and several others become embroiled in serious legal and ethical problems.

Not a single one was voted out of office; only the legal system and term limits gave us the housecleaning we so badly needed.

Incumbents aren't running unopposed because they're so beloved that their constituents think they deserve to keep their jobs by acclamation.

It's because challengers are scared off by a closed system in which winning a council seat takes name recognition, campaign workers and a load of money which business and labor groups that rely on government largesse are happy to provide to prop up incumbents who do their bidding.

Until we level the playing field for challengers by embracing publicly financed elections or other curbs on special-interest money in politics, term limits are our only line of defense against lifetime incumbency that stifles competition and fresh ideas.

A divided Charter Commission voted to eliminate or extend term limits to deal with a relatively minor reapportionment issue that could occur in 2010.

Members presented insufficient justification for tampering with the term limits approved by voters by a margin of more than 80 percent in 1992.

The first question asks if council term limits should be "replaced," and then offers a mouthful of gobbledygook about addressing "concerns relating to election of City Council members caused by reapportionment every 10 years."

Voters who answer "yes" are then directed to a second question asking them to choose between Alternative A to eliminate council term limits and staggered terms, or Alternative B to extend term limits from two consecutive four-year terms to three terms.

The second alternative would also eliminate staggered terms for council members, meaning that all nine seats would be up for re-election every four years either way. Neither proposed alternative would affect the mayor's term limit of two consecutive four-year terms.

Voters can save themselves a lot of confusion by simply voting "no" on Charter Question 1.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.