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Analysis: Term Limits For County Supervisors

The Debate Over Term Limits For County Supervisors

GLORIA PENNER: San Diego voters will decide next month whether it's time to impose term limits on the top elected officials at the county. Each of San Diego's five county supervisors has been in office for between 15 and 18 years. KPBS reporter Alison St John has been covering this topic and she joins me now with more. Welcome Alison. Alright Alison, I mean, it comes down to what are the main arguments for and against term limits.

ALISON ST JOHN: Well, the people who would like to see term limits in place are pointing out, as you say, the supervisors have all been, an average of the five of them of 16 years now, and the power of incumbency has really grown over that time so that it's very hard to defeat them, and that really voters are not familiar enough with who these people are and what they do to assess the services they provide. And the people who oppose it are saying, "Hey if the voters want them out, they can always vote them out." And they're pointing out that term limits have not exactly been successful in Sacramento; some people are blaming term limits for what is going on, the mess in Sacramento.

PENNER: Well you went out, you did some interviews with people who are on both sides.


ST JOHN: We have some tape now of some people pro and con, and Lorena Gonzalez is with the Labor Council, which is obviously the labor is the main backer of this initiative. And John Dadian is the spokesperson for "No on Proposition B." So let's listen to what they say.

LORENA GONZALEZ: These County Board of Supervisors have been in place since the early to mid-'90s and as a result, they become very unaccountable. We pay very little attention to what they should be doing and the fact is they're not doing what they should be doing. They've, in the last 10 years, spent $100 million on slush fund and special projects. Meanwhile, they're cutting hundreds of jobs, cutting social services for our needy, San Diego County, and they have this slush fund money that they've been putting out year in and year out. So it's time to change the way the county government is run.

JOHN DADIAN: Look where term limits have been implemented. Time and time again, it causes government to destroy itself. The state of California has had term limits since 1990. The City of San Diego. This County Board of Supervisors – and this is where the real irony is, that it's targeting this particular board of supervisors – if they were also run bad, I still might argue against it, but this board of supervisors is one of the best run counties, not in the state but in the country.

ST JOHN: And Gloria I think the point that point that John Dadian is making there is not entirely accurate because this particular initiative would not, in fact, affect the current board of supervisors. This is an initiative that is talking about allowing supervisors two more terms – two terms each. But they would allow these supervisors two more terms before it even kicks into effect.

PENNER: Well, listening to two of them , I have to ask, is there anything surprising about who is supporting and who is supporting and who is opposing the initiative?


ST JOHN: Well absolutely. Traditionally Republicans are the ones who've been all in favor of term limits and the Democrats have been the ones who've been against it. So it's kind of interesting that here we have a political situation where the people who happen to be the subject of the initiative are Republicans. The Democrats are the ones who are saying, "It's time to see if we can't give them some limits to try and get them out."

PENNER: Do we know why the switch?

ST JOHN: Well because of the fact that the Democrats obviously would like to see a change. And the Republicans are very happy with the way it is. So they are not in favor of term limits.

PENNER: Well, it's SEIU that's responsible for getting the proposition on the ballot. That's the Service Employees International Union and they represent a good many of the county employees. So how successful has, let's say labor, we'll make it generic, been organizing other interest groups to support them?

ST JOHN: Well, Gloria, I'd say they have not been that successful. They have gotten some support from the environmental community. And as we know, labor and the environmental community have found that they have a lot of interests in common. But perhaps one of the reasons they haven't formed a stronger and more vocal coalition is because many of the people who might be in a position to be critical of the supervisors are afraid to do so because the supervisors are holding the purse strings. So people who may feel that the services are not being properly funded are not going to speak out. I've found this personally as a reporter, it's hard to get people to speak out against people who are actually in control of the funding that they receive.

PENNER: And yet it's interesting that the labor union was able to get enough signatures on the petitions to qualify this for the ballot.

ST JOHN: Exactly. I think people are willing to sign it. And the labor movement did throw quite a bit of money, a $100,000 – more than that – into getting the signatures.

PENNER: Alison, is San Diego unusual in having supervisors sitting in office for so long?

ST JOHN: Not at all. In fact, it turns out that a third of California counties have at least one supervisor who has been serving between 15 and 20 years. So this is a whole level of government that in some ways is very stable, unlike the state and perhaps more local governments.

PENNER: Just very quickly, why haven't they moved up to higher office?

ST JOHN: Well one of the opinions I heard was from State Association of Counties and the head of that was saying that he thinks that perhaps county supervisors don't want to advance their careers to the state because look at the mess the state is in.

PENNER: OK well thank you very much, Alison St John.

ST JOHN: My pleasure.