Should City Council have term limits?
Days after sealing and stamping envelopes filled with petitions they planned to mail to homes across Wilsonville, former Council President Scott Starr, conservative candidate backer Doris Wehler, and real estate broker Debi Laue extolled the virtues of political term limits.
They said term limits allow fresher voices a seat at the table, dilute the incumbency advantage and erode the barriers between the government and citizenry.
And the petition, if passed, would limit Wilsonville councilors from serving for more than 12 years in a 20-year period. It also would apply to current councilors retroactively — councilors would be able to finish their term if they exceed the limit, but wouldn't be allowed to run for re-election.
Laue, Wehler and Starr maintained that the petition is about their belief that term limits lead to more effective governance.
"I'm a fan of term limits. I don't care if it's local, state or federal. I see the power centers start to form when people stay in office for too long," Laue said. "That was never the way these positions were designed. They were designed to have representatives of the people come in, serve and leave. They were never meant to be careers."
But the trio's political views suggest that there might be more to it than that.
The petitioners are critical of densification in Wilsonville and the congestion and parking issues that they said go along with it. And it just so happens that the petition could shorten the tenure of Wilsonville's two longest standing political leaders — Mayor Tim Knapp and former mayor and current Councilor Charlotte Lehan.
Though Wehler complemented Knapp and Lehan for the work they've done on council, she admitted that the petition was at least in part politically motivated.
"If you say if this is politically motivated for me, yes, in some ways, because I've really disagreed with some things they have done," Wehler said.
Knapp, for his part, thinks the petition is misguided.
"I think it does not acknowledge the very high quality work that has been done by elected officials and staff over a long period of time in Wilsonville," he said. "If they have high-quality candidates, run them for office but don't be surprised if the views the petitioners hold are not widely held by everyone in Wilsonville."
The three have two years to collect the required number of signatures, which is 15% of the Wilsonville population who voted in the last governor's election, for it to become a ballot measure. Wehler said they are aiming for the petition to be submitted by the end of June so that the measure would be placed on ballots in the November election.
While nearby West Linn does not have term limits and Lake Oswego representatives are limited to eight consecutive years on the council, the petitioners based the proposed measure off of Tualatin City Council's term-limiting system.
"We just thought 12 years is a long time to serve, and if you want to wait out two terms (after serving for three terms) and then run again, you can," Wehler said.
Since 1997, the City of Wilsonville has had just two mayors — Lehan and Knapp. Those two have been mayor 22 of the 51 years since Wilsonville was first incorporated and Lehan and Knapp both served on the City Council prior to becoming mayor.
Wehler cited the unrest among Villebois residents over parking and density in the community after the recent fire as evidence that the council might not fully represent the views of the public.
"I just think there are so many new people in town and maybe they don't have the same ideas of how they want the city to develop and want to change it a little bit from what it has been," she said.
Wehler backed the campaigns of Starr, current Councilor Ben West, who repudiated Wilsonville's housing and traffic mitigation strategies during the 2018 election cycle, and conservative candidate John Budiao. However, Wehler said West was not involved in the petition.
"I haven't handpicked anybody to follow them (Lehan and Knapp) and I don't know who would step forward," Wehler said."
Wehler also helped organize an unsuccessful campaign to recall Lehan and two other Wilsonville councilors in 2002 over the approval of a construction contract to build a new city hall.
Lehan and Knapp both did not say whether they would run for another term.
At least in regard to Wehler, Lehan and Knapp didn't think the petition was simply motivated by a principled belief in term limits.
"I think it's absolutely about politics," Knapp said. "If you look at Ms. Wehler's record and the policies and people she's promoted, it's pretty clear what it's about."
Starr, who served on the council for eight years before retiring in 2018, noticed that the longer he served and the more relationships he formed within the government, the more influenced he was by fellow city leaders and bureaucrats.
"You can't help but do that over time," Starr said. "But sometimes those relationships and those influences, you hear those louder than the people who live in the city."
Starr said he had a good working relationship with Knapp and Lehan while on the council and he texted Knapp before starting the petition telling him he wasn't doing it as a way to unseat the mayor. To back up that point, Starr also noted that he led the push that established term limits for appointees to City boards and commissions when he was on the council.
"It's not a Tim or Charlotte thing. This is anybody who is in public office. I wish the U.S. Congress would take a page from this," he said.
Lehan is against term limits for a variety of reasons. She said it would limit voter choice, prevent the natural evolution of a councilor serving for a couple terms before running for mayor — leading to less experienced mayors — and that the council already has more than enough turnover.
Knapp said term limits are undemocratic.
"People have a chance to vote for who they want every four years. If you go to the city council chambers and look at the plaques on the wall, it lists dozens and dozens of people who have been on city council through the years," he said. "The appropriate way to handle elections is to vote for the people you think are good."
Laue posited that more people would run for council if term limits were imposed and candidates weren't consistently running against experienced incumbents.
"There's people out there who have just been on the sidelines, not stepping up because they don't have the money or don't have the time," she said. "If the vacuum was created, I bet there would be a lot of people who would step up."
Lehan, for her part, felt that, if anything, incumbents are sometimes disadvantaged because they have a record that can be criticized, whereas those who have never served in public office do not.
"You are constantly making decisions that impact people where they live," she said. "If you do something they don't like, they will remember that."
And Knapp said there can be significant variance in terms of the quality of new councilors.
"Some of the people who have come in have been very strong performers. Others have not been," he said.
Though the petition would lead to a generally less experienced council, the petitioners hoped that City of Wilsonville employees would pick up some of the slack.
Right now, Knapp attends many regional committee meetings and his fellow councilors attend some as well, and the petitioners suggested that City employees attend more of those meeting and report back to the council.
"The city needs to be represented in some of them and they are by staff who can report and say, 'Hey this is what's going on so the council when it's time to vote can take a position,'" Starr said.
Knapp disagreed with that assessment, stating that staff and elected officials have different roles and can't substitute for one another.
"They are showing ignornace about how those processes work. City staff can't substitute as electeds in any credibility," he said.
To learn more about the petition, visit wilsonvilletermlimits.com.