Ballot measure would force council members to quit after 12 years

By Gary Walker

Ocean Park resident and retired telecom executive Mary Marlow is one of Santa Monica’s more active government watchdogs. Cofounder of the “follow-the-money” Santa Monica Transparency Project, Marlow recently took two city council members to task for apparent violations of an ethics law that prevents officeholders from accepting contributions from developers whose projects they’ve supported.

Now Marlow is calling on Santa Monica voters to impose term limits on their city council members.

Joined by Santa Monica City Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich, Marlow announced last week that she has filed paperwork to gather signatures for a city ballot measure that would limit council members to no more than three four-year terms.

Members of the California Legislature, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the Culver City and Los Angeles city councils are presently held to term limits, and Marlow says Santa Monica is overdue.

“Progressive cities across the state, including the city of Los Angeles, have for many years imposed term limits on their public officials. The Santa Monica City Council itself has recognized the need to limit the terms of members of the city’s boards and commissions. It’s time for our city to align itself with other jurisdictions and join the good governance movement,” Marlowe said.

Himmelrich, who as a candidate four years ago promised she’d leave after two terms, believes term limits would increase voter participation and expand opportunities for residents to serve in local public office.

“Particularly when you have a part-time council, [term limits] can provide an opportunity for more people to get involved. And it creates more competitive races and more interest in the races,” she said.

In 2014, Marlow publicly challenged council members Robert Holbrook and Pam O’Connor over campaign contributions. O’Connor, a member of the council since 1994, will complete her sixth term this year. Holbrook retired later that year after 24 years on the council.

“It’s about structural change,” said Marlow. “It’s not a level playing field right now, and I think term limits will level the playing field.”

Twenty-year Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown, whose fifth term on the council concludes this November, has been a political ally for Himmelrich but disagrees with her about term limits.

“We do have term limits — they’re called elections,” McKeown quipped during a 2014 interview.

“We’ve watched term limits turn Sacramento over to lobbyists and special interests,” McKeown elaborated this week. “Leveling the playing field for new candidates calls for getting money and privilege out of politics, not restricting voter choice to retain experienced, effective representatives.”

McKeown noted that he has been a longtime advocate of government transparency, including limitations on political contributions to candidates in city races.

“I’ve championed clean public campaign finance laws in Santa Monica, only to be stymied by entrenched money, which distorts democracy. We need to provide financial support for genuine citizen representatives to lead our community, not just the corporate-sponsored or self-funding wealthy,” he asserted.

There has been little research on the impacts of term limits at a municipal level, but in 2004 the Public Policy Institute of California published a research paper about the legislative term limits that California voters enacted in 1990. The analysis found that term limits altered, but did not revolutionize, the type of legislators who arrive in Sacramento.

“Specifically, Prop. 140 accelerated trends of increasing female and minority representation that were already under way in California. Rather than representing a new breed of ‘citizen legislator,’ however, new members after term limits behave a great deal like their precursors,” the analysis concluded.