A good government group wants to stimulate city council turnover, but others argue a 12-year cap on public service would strip power away from the people

By Gary Walker

A local initiative that would limit Santa Monica City Council members to three four-year terms in office has collected enough signatures to qualify for the November city ballot, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder’s Office.

Supporters argue that the status quo of not limiting the number of terms a council member can be re-elected effectively shuts out people who might run for office but are reluctant to challenge longtime incumbents.

“The power of incumbency is strong. It’s hard for some people to go against the entrenched interests,” said Mary Marlow, leader of the Santa Monica city government watchdog group The Transparency Project, which is sponsoring the initiative.

Five of Santa Monica’s seven city council members have won at least three elections, and only one incumbent council member has lost a re-election bid since the mid-1990s.

“We have a situation now where incumbents almost automatically get reelected for decades. They are frequently backed by wealthy special interests with business before the council who pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into each election cycle,” said Marlow, a former telecom executive.

However, only two current councilmembers have held office for more than 12 years: Pam O’Connor, first elected in 1994, and Kevin McKeown, who took office in 1998 — both of whom must seek re-election in November.

And even if voters approve term limits, incumbents have little incentive to plan for retirement. The initiative is not retroactive, meaning term limits wouldn’t stop anyone from seeking re-election until at least 2030.

By then McKeown would be an octogenarian and quite possibly serving his 32nd year as a city council member, so he’s opposed to term limits for a different reason: the belief that they ultimately limit voter choice.

“Every four years each councilmember is judged on whether she or he has represented voters’ interests. Forcing effective councilmembers out of office on an arbitrary calendar gives more power to special interests, who can always find a fresh face to fund,” McKeown said. “Why should a voter give up the power to retain an effective councilmember?”

Councilman Terry O’Day, who took office in 2010, is also against term limits. He argues that seasoned lawmakers are an asset to the community.

“I oppose [the ballot measure] because experience matters and the voters should be able to choose experience,” O’Day said.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich, who is expected to seek a second term in November, has supported the term limits initiative.

So does the slow-growth Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, which lists Marlow as an advisory member.

“We want a city council that is more responsive to residents and less beholden to the special interests and money donated by those with business before the council. We think too much power, concentrated in the same hands over decades, as has occurred in Santa Monica, discourages qualified candidates from running,” the organization wrote in a statement.

Members of the California Legislature, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the city councils of Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Culver City are currently held to term limits.

In Culver City a council member can serve two consecutive four year terms before they are required to step down but can run again after two years of being off the council. The Transparency Project initiative would set a three-term limit, consecutive or not.

“We thought having a measure that was simple to understand would be best,” explained Marlow. “Three terms is a lot.”

The Transparency Project was instrumental in pushing the council to rewrite its statutes on lobbying in 2016 and has consistently challenged the status quo at City Hall over perceived violations of ethics.

In 2014 they challenged O’Connor about violating the voter approved Oaks initiative by accepting campaign contributions from developers whose projects she had voted to approve. O’Conner returned contributions that had been called into question and the city did not pursue an ethics investigation.