Term limits: Is it a good idea?
Those with a stake in the May ballot measure that would prevent Wilsonville city councilors from serving for more than 12 years in a 20-year period have strong opinions about the consequences of term limits.
Endorsers say it would produce a wave of new candidates and fresh ideas, while those against claim the subsequent turnover and ousting of experienced representatives — namely Mayor Tim Knapp and Councilor Charlotte Lehan, who've been Wilsonville's only two mayors since 1997 — would diminish the city's institutional knowledge and regional influence.
With both sides making their arguments clear over the past year, the Spokesman took a step outside the city to ask what leaders in term-limited cities and experts think about the rule, how it affects governance and how they compare the recent history between Wilsonville and cities with term limits.
Here are some of their perspectives and insights:
Kelly B. Smith, an assistant professor in the political science department at central Florida's Stetson University and who has expertise in state level politics, said term limits often are imposed to help increase turnover and remove the incumbency advantage.
But what's the incumbency advantage, you might ask?
"Essentially, incumbents are more likely to win, which allows officials to serve in the same elected position for a long period of time. Furthermore, it can oftentimes prevent newcomers because challengers have a difficult time beating the incumbent," Smith wrote via email.
According to an article in The Oregonian, challengers were unable to defeat any incumbents in Portland City Council elections between 1992 and 2015.
On the other hand, based on the website FiveThirtyEight's data, the advantage for members of the U.S. Congress in the 2018 election was less than 3 percentage points (down from as much 8 percentage points two decades prior).
Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, whose city has term limits, agrees with the assertion that incumbents are advantaged.
"Nobody wants to run against an incumbent," he said. "In American politics, it's a sure way to usually lose."
Along with name recognition, money can give incumbents a leg up. According to a study published by the Social Science Quarterly, incumbents in city council elections in Los Angeles and Chicago were able to raise significantly more money than those who were not incumbents.
The study also showed that other factors like professional background, gender and endorsements by political parties or interest groups didn't influence money raised.
The petitioners of Wilsonville's term limits measure believe more people would be willing to run for office if they didn't have to campaign against experienced incumbents.
However, in the city of Tualatin, which imposed the same term limits policy that Wilsonville petitioners introduced, saw the same number of people (two) run for mayor in the 2014 election (before term limits) as the 2018 election (after term limits).
In the 2016 election (before term limits), four people ran for three council positions and seven people ran for four positions in 2018.
"I think, generally speaking, there's not been a large clamoring of people wanting to run for office," said former Tualatin mayor Lou Ogden, who was ousted due to the term limits measure after serving as mayor for 24 years.
Ogden agreed that the incumbent advantage is real, but said it is developed with hard work and community engagement and noted that an incumbent known for bad policy or missteps can struggle to earn reelection.
Simply put, he thinks if you don't like what an elected official is doing, you should vote them out of office.
"(When considering term limits) people don't stop to think that they can elect someone else anytime they want," Ogden said.
Smith, on the other hand, said that if she were to run for office, she likely would wait for an incumbent to leave before throwing her hat in the ring.
"When a seat opens up that does not have an incumbent, there is an opportunity to run a race without having to combat the incumbent advantage," Smith said.
Does experience matter?
Tualatin City Councilor Robert Kellogg has enjoyed watching Tualatin Mayor Frank Bubenik (elected in 2018) grow into the role over the past 14 months and become involved in regional groups like the Washington County Coordinating Committee and the Metropolitan Mayors' Consortium.
"He's grown as far as not only knowledge of the players at the regional level, but also the policy issues," Kellogg said.
But in just a couple years, because he served on the council for two terms prior to becoming mayor, Bubenik will leave office and be replaced by someone new.
Kellogg was a key advocate of the city's 2016 term limits ballot measure. And he is still supportive of the general idea that term limits can foster a healthy degree of turnover.
But, while watching Bubenik, Kellogg's thinking on the matter has shifted. He's now amenable to the idea that term limits should be separate for mayor and council — similar to what the City of Beaverton is proposing with its upcoming ballot measure to revise its city charter.
"It would be very difficult to step into the shoes of being mayor and then be effective (without first serving on the council). It's almost a prerequisite that you would have to serve on council. And (under Tualatin's rules) if you don't, you're harming the effectiveness of the City, and if you do, you're limiting your time as mayor," Kellogg said.
Snider, for his part, said the loss of institutional knowledge can be detrimental for long-term projects, such as the city of Tigard's agreement to share water with the city of Lake Oswego.
"I joined as it was beginning construction. At that time, there was almost no one on the council who was there when the decision was made to join forces with Lake Oswego. And then in a few years, there was no one involved who was there when the agreements were signed," Snider said. "If you think about large long-term projects like that, it's not necessarily ideal to have your council turned over (so much)."
In turn, Snider said councilors are continuously needing to get up to speed on projects.
"It impacts the continuity of leadership of the project. It would be beneficial to have some people who have been in the role longer," he said.
Wilsonville has not had this problem — Knapp and, particularly, Lehan often talk about the various machinations of projects that began as early as the late 1990s.
As one might expect, Ogden agrees wholeheartedly with the idea that experience matters. And he thinks Wilsonville should think twice before forcing Knapp out of office.
"On the outside, Mayor Knapp is actively involved in a broad array of city, county and regional groups," Ogden said. "He's a very engaged, intelligent and active individual. From a competency standpoint, I would not advocate for losing that kind of competency."
Lake Oswego Mayor Kent Studebaker, who will be term-limited out at the end of this year, didn't feel like he needed many years to grow into his role as mayor.
"I don't think it would take a full four-year term to settle into that," he said. "If you pay attention, it doesn't take that long."
How do term limits
affect council turnover?
Since the city of Wilsonville's incorporation in 1968, the city has had 53 councilors and eight mayors. Since Lake Oswego adopted its current two terms-and-you're-out policy in 1980, the city has had 54 councilors and seven mayors. Tigard, meanwhile, has had 18 mayors since Wilsonville's incorporation.
How does turnover
Studebaker said that, generally speaking, City policy continues on a steady path even when there's a high degree of turnover on the council. However, he said there can sometimes be sudden shifts. For instance, Lake Oswego's current council is more supportive of a project to build a community pool than its previous iteration.
And Kellogg noted that while Ogden led a council that placed restrictive measures on marijuana businesses, Bubenik's council changed course.
"There were some questions about whether those restrictions were truly the will of the community," he said. "My guess is if Mayor Ogden were still in charge, we wouldn't be looking again at marijuana facility regulations."
As an outside observer, Snider thought the City of Tualatin made some positive changes after Bubenik replaced Ogden.
"I think having a fresh perspective in the mayor seat in Tualatin certainly has their community in a different direction than it had been before," Snider said. "I'm not saying Ogden was doing a poor job, but when you're doing the job for 20-plus years and no one else has had the opportunity to be mayor, I'm not sure that's great either."
Wilsonville's council has been relatively steady in terms of policy goals and projects over at least the last decade.
Overall, Studebaker, Snider and Kellogg all thought some level of term limits is beneficial.
"They allow for some changes. Part of that depends on who you have in office. Sometimes you have someone really good and you hate to lose them. Overall, I'd say they're a good idea," Studebaker said.
Snider said: "Conceptually, I'm supportive of term limits. I think having fresh ideas and new perspectives is generally a good thing."
On the negative side, Smith said term limits can limit voter choice.
"More abstractly, term limits may be problemmatic because they may reduce the choice of voters by automatically disqualifying an official from running for a position. The criticism is that if a very popular official has to leave due to term limits, the people are forced to choose another candidate even if they would prefer the original official," she said.
Ogden described term limits in Tualatin as a "knee-jerk reaction" fueled by a group of angry residents. And he thought that Wilsonville residents should consider the intent of the petitioners before deciding whether to approve the measure.
In Wilsonville's case, chief petitioner Doris Wehler consistently financially supported candidates with differing policy views to Knapp and Lehan prior to introducing the petition.
However, she and other petitioners have said their petition is based on the conviction that term limits would be beneficial for Wilsonville, not personal grievance or simply as a way to oust Knapp and Lehan.
"Voters need to think about and understand what they (petitioners) are trying to accomplish with term limits," Ogden said.
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