CERRITOS — The 1988 City Council race is now wide open.
Passage of an initiative this week that prevents council members from serving more than two consecutive terms automatically bumps Mayor Don Knabe and Councilman Daniel K. Wong from the council in two years and throws the door open to a host of likely challengers.
Knabe and Wong, both midway through second terms on the council, will be the first casualties of Proposition H, an amendment to the City Charter that was approved easily Tuesday by nearly 56% of Cerritos voters. The final results: 7,965 yes and 6,345, or 44.3%, no.
The two-term measure will also force from office two other longtime council members, Diana S. Needham and Barry A. Rabbitt, when their terms end in 1990. Between them, Needham and Rabbitt have served on the council for 24 years.
Under the new law, incumbents will have to sit out for two years before they can run again or serve by appointment.
"It is the end of an era in Cerritos politics," said Cris Fuentes, a Proposition H sponsor who predicted the two-term concept will spread to other nearby cities. Cerritos became the 19th charter city in California to adopt a two-term limit.
But Needham called the vote a "disappointing day for Cerritos," warning that the city will be losing "a lot of experience" on the council. The three-term councilwoman said she was surprised at the outcome because a private survey commissioned by Proposition H opponents showed that most of those polled were satisfied with the city's direction and the performance of the council.
"We had hoped to link that happiness with voting 'no' on Proposition H," Needham said. "But it didn't work. . . . This measure apparently had a lot of popular support."
Both sides agree that the initiative will dramatically alter the political picture in Cerritos, beginning with the April, 1988, council election. Needham said the number of candidates vying for the two open seats could top the record 15 that ran for three seats in the most recent council elections, last April.
Predictions of a wide-open field free of incumbents is sweet music to the ears of Proposition H supporters, who played successfully on the theme of change in City Hall. They argued that the power of incumbency had become too great for the average candidate to overcome. To drive home the point, they pitched the political cliche, "Time for fresh ideas." Voters apparentely listened and liked it.
"It's a cliche, but people believe in it," said Leora Einson, chairwoman of the Yes on Proposition H Committee. "It doesn't matter how smart or dynamic you are, after 8 or 12 years in office you grow stale."
'Accessible' City Hall
Councilwoman Ann B. Joynt, the only member of the council backing the measure, said City Hall is "again accessible to all residents."
While proponents said the two-term limit was an attempt to make future council elections more democratic, opponents said it was a tool to oust the current council from power. Those against Proposition H also warned that the measure would create a leadership vacuum in City Hall by turning out four council members in two years, and leaving the job to a crop of rookies. And they argued that the measure will rob residents of the right to vote for the candidate of their choice.
To muster support to defeat the measure, the four council members went to unprecedented lengths for a city election. With their political careers at stake, they reported raising $18,945 to finance a last-minute blitz of glossy flyers and letters urging residents to vote against the measure. The bulk of those contributions were from big development interests outside of Cerritos, a tactic that emerged as a central issue in the campaign and nearly overshadowed the two-term proposal itself.
The council said it had no choice but to accept the contributions to get their message out. Council members denied any conflict of interest in accepting the money, but the move may have cost them precious support.
"We were damned if we did, and damned if we didn't," said Knabe, who may not even finish his term. He confirmed late Tuesday night that he will run for the Republican nomination for the 33rd state Senate District, a seat now held by Democrat Paul Carpenter of Norwalk, who was elected Tuesday to the state Board of Equalization. Wong, who is also a Republican, said Tuesday that he is considering a run for the same seat, which will be filled by special election in the spring.
'Shocked' by Big Spending
"I never wanted to get personally involved in this," the mayor said, "but we had to tell people how bad this law really is."
Margurette Nicholson, a longtime council critic and Proposition H supporter, said the big-spending strategy backfired. "I think people were shocked by the kind of money the council was accepting," she said.