CERRITOS — There is one thing the two sides contesting Proposition H agree on:
If voters on Nov. 4 approve the measure, which prevents City Council members from serving more than two consecutive terms, it will forever change this city of 55,000.
How much depends on which side is speaking.
Proponents believe that the two-term limit will break the hold that a clique of well-financed incumbents have on City Hall. They say it will ensure a steady rotation of new council members who will bring new ideas and vitality to the job.
And, they argue, it will lessen the need to accept political contributions to get reelected from interests outside Cerritos.
Opponents, however, warn that passage of the measure will mark one of the darkest days in the city's 30-year history. They say it will reduce the council to a collection of rookies groping to guide a city with an annual budget of $65 million, and rob residents of the right to vote for the candidate of their choice.
And, they argue, the proposition is really an attempt to bounce the current council from office.
Amendment to Charter
The two-term limit before the city's 24,976 registered voters is in the form of an amendment to the City Charter.
The intent is simple: If favored by a majority of voters, council members can serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms. However, they would be eligible to run again or serve by appointment after two years.
Of the 82 charter cities in California, Cerritos would become the 19th to adopt a two-term limit, according to the California League of Cities. Five of them are in Southern California: Arcadia, Cypress, Huntington Beach, Irvine and Seal Beach.
The charter change would be effective with the next municipal election, in April, 1988, meaning that Mayor Don Knabe and Councilman Daniel K. Wong would be the first incumbents forced to the political sidelines. Both are in the middle of their second terms, and both have expressed strong interest in seeking third terms.
Predictably, Knabe and Wong, along with two other council members, Diana S. Needham and Barry A. Rabbitt, have formed the nucleus of the opposition to Proposition H.
Pushing the proposition is a group of residents, local activists and a handful of council challengers who have been unable to win in recent years. Shortly after the April city elections, the group formed, and by mid-July its followers had walked the city's 43 precincts, gathering nearly 2,800 signatures to qualify the two-term initiative for the ballot.
On one level, the campaign has resembled a civics exercise, with both sides talking in high-principled tones about voters' rights and freedom of choice at the ballot box. Both camps quote founding father Thomas Jefferson in their ballot arguments, and both have argued long and hard about the power of incumbency in local elections.
On another, more basic level, opponents of the measure say it is a test of the current council's policies--and popularity.
Rabbitt, who won reelection in April to a record fifth term, said the two-term limit is simply a recall effort in disguise because if it passes, four members of the current council will be removed from office within two years.
Rabbitt and others have come to call it the "Lame Duck Proposition."
"Those backing this charter change want us out so they can have a better hope of getting elected themselves and controlling City Hall," Rabbitt said. "It will be a very sad day if this measure passes. . . . It will threaten the positive and progressive direction of this city."
Knabe said he believes that there are only two reasons anyone would propose a limit on terms.
"Either they are unhappy with those currently in office or they want to create their own situation to run," the mayor said. "If that's true, how can I not take this personally?"
Proponents of the initiative deny that their aim is to dump the current council.
The target, they say, is a system that gives incumbents a big advantage at election time. They contend that incumbents use their office to build name recognition and raise money to remain in power indefinitely at the expense of the "little guy" who wants to run but can't muster the resources to win.
"There are a lot of people in Cerritos who are bright, educated and community-minded who want an opportunity to serve and deserve that chance," said Councilwoman Ann B. Joynt, who knocked off two-term incumbent Alex Beanum to win election in April and is now the only member of the council backing Proposition H.
"But the ability of the incumbent to draw large financial support makes it, if not impossible, certainly very difficult for the average citizen to run and be successful," she said. "I'm still $3,000 in the hole. . . . and unless you're willing to assume that kind of debt, the average person just isn't going to run. And that's unfortunate."
In a bit of political irony, Joynt herself has become an issue in the campaign.