Former Councilman Weighs In

Gerry DeWitt Recounts How Santa Barbara Term Limit Ordinance Was Written

All the recent talk about the term limit ordinance’s return to haunt Hal Conklin certainly does bring on a feeling of déjà vu! And like last time around, there is confusion both about what the language means and about how it came to be written. A court may once again wind up deciding the former, but I can address the latter.

The original proposed measure was brought to the City Council by a citizens’ reform group, who requested that we place it on the ballot. It was not placed on the ballot by initiative; it was the council who wrote the final language. The group’s concern was that incumbency was such an advantage in elections that challengers were placed at an inherent disadvantage. Their only goal was to require a break in service after two consecutive terms on the council or as mayor.

The proposal brought to us, and reviewed by the City Attorney, said simply that no one may serve more than two consecutive terms on the City Council, or more than two consecutive terms as Mayor. Members of the public addressed that proposal, comment was closed, and the council agreed to place it on the ballot.

Then, at the last minute, one councilmember suggested the unlikely possibility that a person could serve two terms on the council and two terms as mayor, then go back on the council for two terms, and back to the Mayor’s office, ad infinitum, without a break. The last-minute addition that managed to put “cumulative” and “consecutive” in the same sentence was intended only to close that very limited perceived loophole in the measure that was brought before us. It was not to impose any sort of lifetime ban after 16 years of service; it was not to prevent anyone from serving as mayor after any length of service on the council. And yet here we are.

No one will ever again be in Mr. Conklin’s position of having served four consecutive terms on the council, and the court last time ruled that voters only meant he needed a break from service. But because that awkward post script to the law, hastily drafted on the council dais, is now being misinterpreted as a lifetime ban, it needs to be changed.

The council should immediately place before voters a measure to remove that sentence from the law and restore the original wording and intent of the law.

One final note: perhaps the group that proposed the law in the first place was right about the advantages of incumbency in elections. The measure was approved in 1989 in the same election that saw Mayor Sheila Lodge and me elected to our third terms, and Hal Conklin elected to his fourth!

Gerry DeWitt was a Santa Barbara city councilmember from 1981-1993.

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