Next month we have the opportunity to vote to make changes in Stephenville’s city charter. Some of the proposed changes are harmless, some are necessary, but some are at best unnecessary, and at worst may reduce the freedom of the voters to select their city council. Especially noteworthy are Proposition 1, a proposal to reduce the size of the city council, and Proposition 3, which would set term limits for council members.
The city charter currently establishes a council consisting of a mayor and 8 council members. Proposition 1, if passed, would reduce the number of city council members by 2, thereby creating a 7-member council.
Advocates of reducing the council’s size say the council is abnormally large for a city with our form of government. But so what? Years ago, the city council created a special commission (of which I was a member) to study whether Stephenville should be subdivided into election districts with each district electing one council member. I was struck by the comments made by an opponent of the scheme. She said that under the proposed single-member-district system, she would have only one representative on the council. But under the current system, she gets to elect eight council members, as well as the mayor, to represent her. However, reducing the number of seats on the council will reduce the number of people the voters can elect to represent and serve them.
The charter also currently allows council members to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms—provided they can keep winning re-election. But Proposition 3, if passed, would limit a council member to serving two consecutive terms before requiring him to leave the council for at least a year before running again.
Nobody has the right—or should have the right—to serve in office as long as he chooses. And term limits are frequently adopted to prevent officials from becoming too entrenched in their positions. Depending on whether the official has the power to unduly affect the outcome of his election, this may make sense. We’ve typically limited the number of terms our president and governors in many states can serve—after all, they command the armed forces and state national guards, and unscrupulous executives could conceivably use their military power to remain in office long after the people wanted them out. State lawmakers can likewise extend their stays in office by redrawing election district boundaries to their unfair advantage, and both state and national lawmakers can use their control of public funding to channel money to their states and districts with which to buy votes.
But Stephenville city council members have no such power to control election outcomes—or at least if they do, I failed to discover that power during my years on the council. Indeed, I know of no council member who ever amassed so much power that he could force, trick, or otherwise manipulate the voters into keeping him in office.
To the contrary, Stephenville’s voters have always had the single most democratic and effective means of limiting the terms of their council members—free elections. The voters can easily remove a council member from office for whatever reasons they choose—indeed, having been “retired” by the voters myself, I’m living proof. Given the existence of this current means of limiting terms of unwanted council members, and both the freedom and the determination of the voters to use it when they so choose, an additional term limits provision is at best redundant and unnecessary.
But while the adoption of Proposition 3 will not harm the voters’ right to reject council members they don’t want, it will nonetheless reduce the voters’ freedom to re-elect whom they do want for city council. The voters could conceivably conclude that a council member, having served two terms, has thereby proven himself to be so effective that they want to reward his service with additional terms, but Proposition 3, if passed, would prohibit them from doing so when they wanted, by requiring this council member, however much his services are wanted, to “sit out” for at least a year. Of course, such a council member would not necessarily be unique in his talents, and the voters could still elect someone else to replace him, but why should their right to select whom they want, when they want, to serve on the council be diminished?
In sum, Propositions 1 and 3, however well-meaning, will, if passed, reduce the voters’ rights to be represented by whom they want on the Stephenville City Council. Proposition 1 will reduce the number of council members they can elect to serve them, and Proposition 3 will reduce their right to re-elect those council members whom they wish to retain. Neither proposition, if passed, will eliminate the voters’ freedom, but each may diminish it. To preserve the freedom and power the voters currently enjoy, voters of Stephenville should reject both propositions.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.