Term limits have merits, but this measure is flawed
The term limits ballot measure slated for the May 19 election will be the most impactful in decades — likely since voters approved the use of the Willamette River for water services before the turn of the millenium.
The vote will effectively decide the fate of two of Wilsonville's most long standing politicians — Mayor Tim Knapp and Councilor Charlotte Lehan — and the rapidity with which Wilsonville's council will change moving forward. If passed, city representatives couldn't serve for more than 12 years in a 20-year period.
So when it came time to endorse, we did not take the decision lightly. And we think both sides have legitimate points and a strong case.
First, we'll start with what we did not consider in this process.
While it's clear that many of the same people who support term limits have also been critical of the city on other issues — for decades in the case of petitioner Doris Wehler — and it's clear that, for some, motivations likely extend beyond the deeply felt belief that term limits are healthy for democracy, we think the measure should be considered only on its face, not based on extraneous factors.
We also don't think the measure should be a referendum on Knapp or Lehan. While citizens may understandably quibble with their dogged stance on the Aurora Airport, certain appointment decisions that could be seen as politically motivated and three planned bridges, the debate should be about the measure, not the people.
So what do we think?
We think the concept of term limits is healthy for democracy. We agree with petitioner and former city councilor Scott Starr that incumbents have an inherent advantage in local races, in part because of financing advantages and an existing array of allies but also because low information voters will sometimes just check the box of the incumbent. We also think Starr made a convincing point: that the longer you serve on the council, the more you hear the bureaucracy and the less you hear the community.
On the other hand, Wilsonville's City Council has naturally had a fairly healthy amount of turnover already. The city has had 53 councilors in its 52-year history. As for the mayorship, which has been helmed by either Knapp or Lehan since 1997, there have been just eight in Wilsonville's history and we could understand community members wanting change in that regard.
But we think this particular measure is flawed. If imposed, councilors would be prevented from serving for more than 12 years in a 20-year period — even if they also serve as mayor during that time.
It takes years to understand and get to know the players regionally, as well as the nuances of arcane policies like urban renewal and zoning, and the push and pull between the council and the bureaucracy. And we think that, in most cases, mayors should have served on council for at least one term and maybe two before taking on the role. Both Council President Kristin Akervall and Councilor Joann Linville recently announced that they would run for a second term but are still growing into their roles.
Under this policy, if you were to serve for two terms on the council, you would only be allowed one term as mayor. Just as you're getting your feet wet in that position, you're suddenly a lame duck. To make matters worse, a councilor who is appointed in the middle of a term would only get two more terms to serve in any capacity (Wilsonville has historically had to appoint many councilors to fill seats that opened before a term ended).
In fact, if term limits had been instituted in the 1990s, Lehan would have been a lame duck during her impressive efforts to guide the siting of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (because she was initially appointed to the council, then won a council race and then finally won a mayoral race). Lehan said if legislators had known she would soon be forced out of the role, she would have had less sway with them during this fight — and we believe her. LikeLehan, Knapp would have had to give up the mayoral role after one term under term limits.
We also think it's beneficial to have a mayor, like Knapp, who is more than just another councilor who runs meetings and is willing to travel to Salem and Washington D.C. to lobby for resources. But it takes time to grow into that role.
Lastly, we think it's a good thing to have councilors with such a breath of history at the tip of their tongue, like both Lehan and Knapp have, and Tigard Mayor Jason Snider's comment to the Spokesman about the loss of institutional knowledge under term limits resonated with us.
That's not to say we think the sky would fall if term limits passes. We think city staff could do a good job bringing new councilors up to speed and that the city could stand to have a new mayor after nearly 25 years of Knapp and Lehan leading the way. And if a more lax term limits proposal had been filed, we might have supported it.
We think most Wilsonville citizens are happy with how the city has been planned and with its consistent, steady leadership — particularly in comparison to some neighboring cities.
As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
Vote no on term limits.
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