In the Northern California city of Sunnyvale, a two-term limit for council members was passed to break up a "good-old-boy" network.
The mayor of Irvine says he supported a similar restriction in his city to keep council members from making a career of serving on the council.
And in Cypress, it became a political weapon to prevent a council member from seeking a third term.
Sunnyvale, Irvine and Cypress are among a small number of California cities that limit the number of consecutive terms a council member can serve. Of the 82 charter cities in the state, 18 have such restrictions. Most draw the line at two terms, like the presidency.
And many have enacted a limit of terms to neutralize the advantage an incumbent has at election time, according to an informal Times survey of cities with the restriction.
Because campaigning has grown increasingly expensive, city officials acknowledge that those in office have an edge when it comes to spreading their message and attracting contributions. As a result, the incumbents are tough to beat.
In Sunnyvale, the seven-member City Council in the 1970s had become a "private club" for a group of businessmen, said Larry Stone, a councilman in the city of 112,000 in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
"People were elected to office and stayed in office as long as they wanted," he said in a telephone interview last week. "Even when they decided to get out, they would resign before the election so someone with the same philosophy could be appointed and then run for election as the incumbent."
In 1975, Stone, a real estate investor, won a council seat, running on a platform of open government. He immediately proposed a series of reforms, including a two-term limit. The council rejected the idea, so Stone circulated petitions, got the two-term limit on the ballot and voters narrowly approved it. A year later, several councilmen wanted to run for third terms, so they put the two-term question back on the ballot, only this time voters overwhelmingly passed it.
Stone, who is now serving his third term after a two-year layoff in 1983, acknowledged that there is a drawback.
"Once in a while you put out to pasture someone who makes a significant contribution," he said. "But for everyone who was put out to pasture prematurely, there are two or three who have grown bored and tired of the job and should go."
Without the two-term limit, Irvine Mayor David Baker said, too many council members simply stay in office for the prestige.
"The seduction of the office on the local level is powerful," said Baker, who supported the two-term limit that city voters adopted by a wide margin last June. "It's not the most important job in the world. It's good to serve your community. But it's good to move on and let others serve."
Not everyone thinks a two-term limit is good.
Joe Cusimano, a former councilman in Mountain View, was on the council when a limit of terms was adopted in 1975. Because of the law, he said, residents often wind up with mediocre representation.
"There's no question that the two-term law opens the door for a less-than-qualified candidate to win," said Cusimano, a mortician in the Bay Area city. "It's a risk, one that sometimes backfires."
Limit as a Weapon
In Cypress, Mayor Otto Lacayo said the limit is good for those council members who "take very little action or leadership." But for those who become "movers and shakers" it is a problem.
When Lacayo announced plans to run for a third term in the late 1970s, he said, several of his opponents on the council pushed for a two-term limit to block his reelection. The limitation passed, but not before existing council members were exempted from the law.
Statewide, there does not appear to be a noticeable trend among charter cities to adopt a two-term limit, said Victoria Clark, a spokeswoman for the California of League of Cities. It is on the Nov. 4 ballot in only one city, Cerritos.
While the league has never taken a position on the two-term limit, Clark said, it is a "liability for us" because it usually takes a local council member two terms to develop the expertise to serve the statewide organization.
Across the country, Randy Arndt of the National League of Cities in Washington, said most cities do not limit terms.
"Fatigue and other things usually exact a high enough toll on one's enthusiasm and energy to serve," he said. "Who needs a statutory limitation?"