Voters could get a chance to set term limits for Allegheny County councilors, while also freeing them up to run for other elected positions. Council’s Government Reform Committee will weigh both possibilities when it discusses two proposed ballot questions on Wednesday.
One of the proposals would address an unusual rule that requires councilors to step down before seeking another office. There were two efforts in 2003 to overturn the "resign to run" policy, but voters chose to leave it in place.
The bill's sponsor this year, Democrat Nick Futules, hopes a second proposal of his – a measure that would limit councilors to three terms of four years – will help convince voters to change their minds. Each question would appear separately on the ballot, and voters could back one without approving the other, but Futules said he hopes voters will weigh them together.
“I really wanted to put on a referendum question: ‘If we submit to term limits, would you give us the opportunity to run without resigning?’” Futules said.
But a county rule prohibits ballot questions from addressing more than one topic.
“I tried to do it as one question, and I soon found out that I could not," he said.
Each question Futules has proposed would need support from a majority of council and the approval of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald before it could go before voters.
Term limits can be controversial. Critics argue that lawmakers often become more effective with experience, as they learn relevant procedural rules and norms and become more established.
Futules acknowledged that he is a “different person” today than when he first joined council in 2008. Now, he said, “I know more. I know the people in office. I know the directors. I know how the system works. I know what’s good and what’s bad.”
Futules expects some councilors to resist placing term limits on themselves, and said his proposal is merely a “starting point.” He said he is open to amendments that might be necessary to win a majority of council support.
Democratic Councilor Tom Duerr has already embraced the measure.
“I’ve always been told that one of the most selfless things you can do in government is [to] limit your own power,” Duerr said. And he added that increasing council turnover would help bring new ideas to county government while creating a sense of urgency for councilors to advance their legislative priorities.
Duerr acknowledged that “as the youngest council member and as one of the newest, this would affect me more than [most].” But he said, “I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”
Councilor Bethany Hallam, who like Duerr is a Democrat who just began her first term, countered, however, “We already have term limits, and they’re called elections. … If you want to say, ‘Someone needs to get out of office,’ then OK – go to the ballot box and vote them out.”
She added that Futules’ proposal would be unfair to council newcomers. Upon passage, the referendum would count council members’ current term as the first of their remaining three. Futules himself has already completed three terms on council, making him one of its longest-serving members, along with Bob Macey. But under his proposal, he would have as many terms remaining as Hallam.
“It’s not fair,” Hallam said.
In addition, Hallam said, term limits threaten to make councilors lame ducks who lose clout, or self-restraint, once they become ineligible to run for reelection. She noted also that legislators at the state and federal levels do not face such restrictions.
For that reason, she said, she supports Futules’ second proposal to do away with council’s “resign to run” rule. But she continued, rather than try to persuade voters with term limits, councilors should get to know their constituents better and build trust with them.
“Maybe they would [then] be more inclined to say, ‘OK, I would like to have you as a council person. I would maybe like to have you as my state rep or my state Senator, or my county executive – any [other] offices,” Hallam said.