CERRITOS — Defying a recently passed City Charter ban on third terms, Mayor Daniel Wong says he will run for reelection to the City Council this spring.
"If the people really don't want incumbents to hold more than two terms, they can vote me out," Wong said in an interview last week. "I am ready to face the chance of being defeated. I have the courage."
Wong's announcement sets the stage for a possible court confrontation over the term restriction. Its vague language has bred various questions. Does the charter amendment, which becomes effective in April, bar incumbents from pursuing more than two consecutive, four-year terms, or does it only stop future council members from staying in office for more than eight years without a two-year break?
Money Turned Down
The council had hoped to clear up the legal muddle this month by financing a lawsuit by the amendment's authors. But in a surprise move, the amendment's backers last week said no thanks to the council's offer of $10,000.
"We're not playing their stupid game," declared Leora Einson, one of a small band of sharp-tongued council critics who was behind the amendment's passage more than a year ago.
Not only are advocates of the term limit refusing the city's money, most of them now also say they will not contest Wong's candidacy. The same voters who approved the two-term limit will ensure its effectiveness by defeating Wong at the polls, they contend.
Wong may still encounter legal obstacles on the way to the ballot box, however. Margurette Nicholson, an amendment proponent who has previously indicated she would go to court to block a third-term candidacy, continues to say she will do so.
And Councilman Donald Knabe, who says he will not seek a third term this spring, predicts Wong's bid for another four years at the council table will not go unchallenged. "I would be surprised if the entire (candidate) filing period went by without someone calling Dan into court."
Although Wong and most of the other council members campaigned vigorously against the charter amendment with the argument that it would force them from office, he said last week that it was unclear to him and his supporters whether the term restriction affects him.
Moreover, he said that some voters who endorsed the term restriction are having second thoughts. "If I don't think I have a chance to win I would not run. . . . I get the feeling that many people that voted for Proposition H are turning to me."
Promoted as a means of breaking the hold of long-time, politically well-financed council members, the two-term limit was carried to approval by an unsophisticated, grass-roots campaign in which supporters spent less than $1,000.
In rejecting the city's $10,000, they invoked the spirit of their 1986 victory. "It just goes against our grain to take city money," said Hyde Madula-Soto.
In a prepared statement handed out at a press conference last week, Proposition H proponents branded the council's offer a "self-serving gesture. . . . The only beneficiaries of this legal maneuvering and expenditure of public funds are the four incumbents who have proven they will do or say anything to perpetuate their power."
The council decided last month that the only way to settle the amendment dispute was to obtain a court ruling clarifying whether incumbents could run again at the end of two terms. And City Atty. Kenneth Brown advised the council that the only way to do that was to help the amendment's supporters launch a lawsuit challenging his opinion that the charter revision's wording was too murky to stop Wong or Knabe from filing candidate papers for the spring council race.
Members of the Proposition H group at first welcomed the city funds. But after discussing the offer and consulting several attorneys, they changed their minds. Initially, "I think we were all just stunned," Einson said. "Then we thought, this is not right. We can't do this."
The group said the three attorneys they approached all expressed interest in the case, but also raised questions about representing one side of a dispute while being paid by the other side. Still, proponents said the specter of conflicting attorney allegiances was not the reason they rejected the city money, since the funds could have been placed in some sort of blind account.
Ann Joynt, a first-term council member who pushed hardest for city financing of both sides of a lawsuit, said she understands the group's refusal of city funding. "They feel they are right and it is not their responsibility" to go to court.
Unlike Knabe, she does not expect a lawsuit to surface during the council race. "My personal opinion is that nothing will happen now no matter who decides to run."
Should that be the case, Joynt said that after the election, she will lobby to have the new council sponsor another charter amendment clearly spelling out the term limit's application to incumbents.