CERRITOS — The authors of last year's City Charter amendment limiting City Council members' tenure in office to two terms knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish.
They wanted to force entrenched incumbents off the council and clear the way for new blood.
The question now is: Does the amendment do that?
With elections set for April, arguments are intensifying over whether the amendment prohibits current longtime incumbents from running again.
Proponents of the charter change, called Proposition H, insist that it does. But the city attorney advised the council last week that the wording of the amendment is so murky that it would not stop Councilmen Daniel Wong and Donald Knabe from campaigning for third terms.
The council, in search of an answer, directed City Atty. Kenneth Brown to find out how the city could take the matter to court for a legal ruling that would determine just who can, and cannot, run.
"It is the responsibility of the city and the responsibility of the City Council to obtain a legal clarification," said Councilwoman Ann Joynt, whose motion to seek a court decision passed 3 to 0, with Knabe and Barry Rabbitt absent.
'A Considerable Shock'
Joynt, a first-termer and the only council member to support Proposition H, called Brown's legal opinion "a considerable shock."
In a four-page memorandum, Brown wrote: "It is likely that a court . . . would conclude that the amendment clearly was not intended to apply to those council members whose terms of office were to expire in April, 1988, and may not apply at all to the incumbent council members. In other words, . . . terms served in whole or in part prior to 1988 would not be counted to disqualify an individual from seeking reelection."
That is not what proponents--or opponents--of Proposition H said last year when the charter change was up for a communitywide vote. Both sides argued that the two-term limit would force four of the council's five members out of office within a couple of years. Supporters said that was all for the good. Opponents said it would rob the city of seasoned leadership.
Told that the entire debate over Proposition H was shaped by the assumption that it would affect incumbents, Brown responded: "What they intended didn't find its way into this document."
Brown's opinion would allow the city clerk to issue candidate papers to the two incumbents whose terms expire this April--Wong and Knabe. But Brown added that the issue will ultimately have to be settled in court.
Knabe, who is considering a bid for the Legislature, says he has no plans to run for reelection. Wong says he has not decided whether he will pursue a third term.
Supporters of Proposition H, who include former unsuccessful council candidates, have vowed to legally challenge any attempt by an incumbent to remain on the council beyond two consecutive terms. (The amendment allows a council member to run again after a two-year break from office.)
Several backers of the amendment castigated the council and Brown at last week's meeting, accusing them of contradictions and conflicts of interest.
"Either you were lying when you said you were going to be instantaneous lame ducks," Chris Fuentes told the council, "or you're lying now when you say you don't know what Proposition H means."
Others questioned whether Brown could be impartial about a matter that affected incumbents' political careers when the council votes on his contract, which brought Brown's firm $366,000 worth of city business in the last fiscal year.
Brown reddened at the criticism, declaring in a high-pitched voice: "I have never been involved in politics."
He also dismissed complaints that he should have raised the incumbency issue when the charter change was up for a vote. "I have no right to do that," he said, insisting that he could not revise the language of ballot items not authored by the city.
Amendment backers say they futilely tried to get Brown and the city clerk to review their wording, which was patterned after similar measures in other cities. They say Brown told them to seek the advice of an outside attorney who dealt with municipal matters. But they say they didn't trust any city attorney to counsel them impartially.
Though a city-obtained legal ruling could save Proposition H supporters at least some of the expense of a court fight, amendment advocate Margurette Nicholson said the council has no business directing Brown to go to court on a matter involving the political fate of individual council members.
"I think it's inappropriate. I think it's a conflict of interest. They vote on his contract," Nicholson said.
Contacted by The Times, staff members of both the League of California Cities and the Southern California Assn. of Governments said it seems proper for Brown to give the council legal advice on the amendment and for the council to pursue a judge's ruling.
"A City Charter amendment is a City Charter amendment," said Gil Smith of the Assn. of Governments, which assists local governments and sometimes lobbies for them. "The City Council has a right to say, 'What does this mean?' "
Nicholson last month filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, accusing Knabe of misusing his office when he asked the Los Angeles County counsel's office for a legal opinion on a hypothetical amendment similar to Cerritos'.
Knabe, chief deputy to County Supervisor Deane Dana, says he sought the opinion last summer only because term limits were being discussed in connection with county and Los Angeles City Council positions.