By Jon Fleischman, c/o the O.C. Register
In the wake of the Orange County bankruptcy back in the 1990s, the voters instituted strong term limits for the Board of Supervisors. After serving two back-to-back four year terms a supervisor may not seek a third consecutive term – they must retire from the board. It’s not a lifetime ban, but there is only one instance of a retired supervisor coming back.
In passing strong term limits, the voters wanted to ensure that being a supervisor was not a career – with members serving for over a decade or even two or three decades. A supervisor has up to eight years to “give back” to their community through this form of public service, but then must leave, and allow for someone else to have that same opportunity.
The system works as the voters intended – which isn’t to say that everything in county government is optimal, but it means that the board is not home to career politicians. Term limits remain popular. In the last few years there have been three local measures to impose term limits, or strengthen term limits, around the county – and in all of those cases they were passed overwhelmingly.
That said – there is always one small class of people who are discontent with strong term limits – some incumbent politicians who have to live under them. Never mind that they likely wouldn’t be in office today had term limits not forced the retirement of their predecessor.
Three weeks ago Supervisor Shawn Nelson added, as a last minute “supplemental addition” to a board meeting agenda, a proposed ballot measure that would have gutted the existing strong term limits. Adding the item so late provided one business day notice to the public.
Supervisor Nelson is in the middle of his second term, and will thus will be forced from the board in 2018.
As drafted, Nelson’s proposal would have changed the term limits from two terms to three, overtly permitting every incumbent an opportunity to serve four more years. The proposal also would cut off the ability of incumbents to return back to the board – which as I said above has happened but a single time.
The legal history on term limits is such that when existing term limits are modified the “clock” is reset for incumbents – and their previous and current terms in office no longer count against the new limits. Thus, if approved by voters, Nelson’s measure would have allowed every incumbent supervisor, including himself, to serve three more full terms in office.
The proposal drew quick criticism from Supervisors Michelle Steel and Todd Spitzer. Nelson clearly did not have the votes at that board meeting to place the proposal on the ballot.
He moved it to the board meeting scheduled for earlier this week. It is worth noting that this week’s meeting was the last date where it was reasonable to have the board place an item on the November ballot.
Nelson also slipped in another change of language, again providing one business day notice to the public. This language purportedly would have dealt with the “resetting the clock” issue. However, the language was introduced too late to have independent legal review of the new language. There is a county counsel (the attorney who works directly for the board) opinion on the matter that has not been made available for public review.
Earlier this week, this time with Supervisor Andrew Do present, Nelson withdrew the item all together – clearly Do was not willing to provide his vote.
We should commend the board majority for not advancing this sort of self-serving proposal to the voters, which would never pass unless its generous impact on incumbents was left out of the ballot question.