editorial (2006-14)

Turn the Page

County office-holders, good and bad, must bow to the people, finally

Turn the Page

There has never been much doubt that the voters of Knox County intended to limit the terms of all of the county’s elected officials, except judges, when they overwhelmingly adopted a term-limits amendment to the county’s Charter in 1994.

But no one paid the amendment much attention after the state attorney general called it unconstitutional the next year. County officials kept running for reelection, and, mostly, winning.

Term limits is a concept that has been around for a long time at the state level, where Delaware limited its governors to two four-year terms in 1787; 37 other states, including Tennessee, now limit gubernatorial service. Nearly half of the states limit the terms of legislators, although Tennessee does not.

At the federal level, presidential terms were limited to two by the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951. Congress initiated that limitation on the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented election to four terms of office, though he died in ’45 before he could fulfill the fourth. Congressional terms remain unlimited.

There are strong arguments for and against term limits for executives, lawmakers and other office holders. They disrupt continuity, they devalue experience among elected officials, and they take away an element of voter discretion in elections. But they keep persons from becoming entrenched in office and effectively prohibit “career politicians” from holding a single office ad nauseam.

Momentum began to build among members of some local electorates to limit the terms of their executives, office holders and representatives on governing bodies only relatively lately, and it has been a difficult movement to derail, once the question is put to the ballot.

“Do you favor term limits?” is a question nearly as loaded as “Do you favor career politicians?” The answer to the first will most often be yes, and the answer to the second will as likely be no.

Thus it was that almost 80 percent of voters who cast ballots in Knox County’s 1994 referendum said yes to term limits here. If all of those yes voters did not want to limit the terms of individual office-holders who had become their choices, over and over, through the years, they would have voted against it.

That’s the rationale behind the state Supreme Court’s ruling that has put Knox County’s long-term office holders on notice that their continued candidacies are very likely illegal. The court ruled that the state Constitution’s provision that the people have the right to alter their government as they wish takes precedence over state laws in the case of charter counties such as Shelby and Knox.

The upshot, beyond the current election campaigns that are thrown into disarray, is not all bad. While we may lose some popular and effective office holders, we will also shed some dead wood, and we will doubtless gain some fresh blood in people with new ideas who are not beholden to long-established constituencies.

Also, the people who seek office will know exactly what they may expect, in terms of their potential time in service. In that regard, they will be less likely, it can be argued convincingly, to become corrupted by the notion that they are unbeatable, no matter what they do or fail to do in the discharge of their duties, so long as they maintain their supposed obligations to their party apparatus and their friends and supporters.

Though voters may always be able to limit the service of an individual office holder, and absolute limits on service can create a lame-duck mentality in the ultimate term that may allow an office-holder to shirk responsibility to constituents, there is a powerful appeal in establishing a true participatory democracy, in which ordinary citizens take turns holding office. The involvement of more people as candidates makes the emergence of a political elite much less likely. And there is no reason to believe that a political elite is a more appealing idea to the voting public than that of a career politician.

There will be a host of positive aspects to term limits that will evidence themselves, we believe, once it is firmly established that no individual may hold office for decades on end, or even a whole decade. Eight years is a pretty long time. Experience is built up fairly rapidly in office. If a successful candidate can’t learn the ropes in a year, that office-holder probably won’t survive to hold a second term.

Turnover in political life is generally a healthy thing. Statesmen and –women have advanced that idea as axiomatic throughout the life of this country. We’re on the verge of proving its worth at the county level here in Knoxville, where city term limits have already shown their value to the public by eliminating some stale personalities and ideas from city government.

The county’s voters have spoken to the issue. It’s been more than 10 years ago now. And their preference was clearly demonstrated in the percentages for and against. Term limits won. It’s way past time we put that sentiment into practice. Turn the long-termers, good and bad, out, turn the page, and move on.