This Friday the New York City Council is poised to overturn the city's term limits law, expressly so that billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg can run for a third term. The term limits law was approved by voters twice, once in 1993 and again in 1996. Voters are not being given a choice about its repeal, however.
Only one public hearing is scheduled, and it's this Thursday at City Hall: click here for details. Generally when an important piece of legislation is going to be considered before the city council, multiple hearings are scheduled in all five boroughs. But the effort to overturn this voter-approved law is being rammed though with as little fanfare as possible by the mayor and Council Speaker Christine Quinn. When the un-democratic nature of this process was pointed out to Speaker Quinn, she replied: “If term limits get extended, voters will have an opportunity at the ballot box to demonstrate whether it was the wrong or right choice. That is the democratic practice.” But the voters already made their choice, twice.
Everything about this stinks, and it does so irrespective of your opinions about the Bloomberg administration or the term limits law. It sends a message to voters that referendums on important issues are meaningless if they become inconvenient for politicians, especially wealthy ones.
Which brings me to an extremely difficult to ignore set of observations about the role of money in all of this. Michael Bloomberg spent $74 million dollars of his personal fortune to get elected in 2001 ($92.60 per vote) and nearly $78 million to get relected in 2005. These numbers completely shattered spending records for non-presidential campaigns. Compare this to the $9.6 million spent by 2005 democratic contender Freddy Ferrer, and it becomes quite clear that it is virtually impossible to offer credible competition, especially in the arena of television advertising. If he runs again, he will spend another numbing sum, again drowning out any other voices and essentially guaranteeing victory.
The size of the megaphone matters a lot, and now Bloomberg is turning his multi-million dollar megaphone at undoing a publically-approved law. The mayor has, to his credit, donated large sums to many NYC civic and cultural institutions, and to a variety of charities. The city council is keenly aware of this, and is loathe to lose this source of non-governmental funding. I would hate to see this revenue stream cut off as well, but isn't this tantamount to bribery?
And there's a sub-plot that's rather unsavory as well: Even if a council member is opposed to a third Bloomberg administration, he or she would benefit from the removal of term limits, too, if said council member wanted to serve a third term. The New York City Council is among the highest paid in the country at $112, 500 a year (they gave themselves a raise in 2006, from $90,000 a year).
In a recent press conference, a reporter asked Bloomberg about the questionable nature of overturning a publicly approved law, and he provided this barely intelligible response:
“Everything we do is controversial. That’s what democracy is all about. If the City Council passes a bill to change term limits, I’ve said I will sign it. And what it really does is it is just gives voters another option. It by no means says the voters don’t have any choice. They just have another choice. And they will be able to make that choice.”
Bloomberg is not Bush, and when the mayor says something this ridiculous, it's clear that he's dodging. He knows this stinks, too, but he's among the wealthiest men on the planet and is accustomed to getting his way.
Michael Bloomberg did not get elected king, and all NYC voters should contact their council members and urge them to vote no on this dangerously un-democratic precedent. All of the council members e-mails can be found at this link.
The Thursday hearing is scheduled to go all day and into the night - the larger the crowd, the louder the message. All will be allowed to speak, right up until the vote on Friday morning, so why not make this your first public oratory? Who knows, maybe you'll be the mayor of NYC some day (but only for two terms, OK?).