CERRITOS — Two veteran City Council members, responding to a key court decision upholding a limit on council terms, said they will not seek reelection next year.
Mayor Diana Needham and Councilman Barry Rabbitt said they will honor a ruling last Friday by Judge Jerold A. Krieger in Norwalk Superior Court.
The judge rejected arguments that the city did not have the power to enforce Proposition H, a City Charter amendment that limits council members to two consecutive terms.
"We have a decision and we should abide by it," said Needham, who has served three terms.
"It's over," said Rabbitt, a 20-year council veteran. "The decision is there. I accept that and will continue to serve the city in some other capacity," he said.
City Atty. Kenneth Brown had argued that the measure, passed by voters in 1986, could not be enforced because it contained ambiguous language and because charter cities were preempted by state law from imposing such limits on elected officials.
But Krieger declared from the bench that those who drafted the measure and voted for it clearly intended to limit council members to two consecutive terms. His single-page opinion said there was no preemption.
Needham and Rabbitt said they will not ask the city to pursue the court effort, leaving the five-member council without three votes to appeal the case. Councilwoman Ann Joynt supports Proposition H.
"My personal opinion is that this should be the final decision and there should not be any appeal," Needham said. Rabbitt agreed, saying, "We fought it to the hilt."
Their decision, in addition to ending a two-year legal battle, opens a new era in Cerritos politics, according to proponents of the proposition.
City officials and Proposition H supporters alike predict there will be a flood of candidates for three seats in the April 10 election. The filing period opens Jan. 11.
With Needham and Rabbitt out, Joynt, who is serving her first term, will be the only incumbent competing.
"There'll probably be about 20 people running for office," said Hydelita Madula-Soto, who helped draft the amendment and twice went to court to get it enforced. "That is what we want, a marketplace of ideas," she said. "Now you'll get more people interested in the elections. You'll probably increase the turnout."
The amendment's backers have always argued that they were seeking to limit the advantages of incumbency, including name recognition and access to campaign money. More people would run for office if incumbents were not always running for reelection, proponents said.
Madula-Soto predicted that all five city planning commissioners will probably enter the council contest. Commission Vice Chairman Sherman Kappe, who placed third in the 1988 council race, already has announced his intention to run.
The issue first went to court during the 1988 council election. Madula-Soto and other Proposition H backers filed suit after incumbent Daniel Wong filed to run for a third term. City Clerk Caroline de Llamas, referring to an opinion by City Atty. Brown that the proposition was invalid, said she would allow Wong's name on the ballot.
A Superior Court judge ruled that Wong could run because it was not clear when the amendment was to have taken effect, but the decision did not address the city attorney's argument that the measure was unenforceable.
At one point during the legal maneuvering, the council considered giving Proposition H proponents $10,000 to go to court to clarify the legal questions. City Atty. Brown contended that only backers of the measure could initiate legal action.
Madula-Soto said this week that attorney's fees would have been double the amount that the council was considering.
But Madula-Soto and another proposition supporter, Leora Einson, eventually returned to court after Rabbitt insisted that he would run for a fifth term and Needham said she might seek reelection if a court decision allowed it. Madula-Soto sought an injunction against the two incumbents.
The city then filed a motion to block Madula-Soto's suit from being heard, arguing that the charter amendment was not enforceable. Judge Krieger disagreed.
Madula-Soto said this week that she respects Needham and Rabbitt for accepting the court's decision. The two officials, who could possibly return to the council after sitting out a term, were gracious about the court decision.
"I appreciate the confidence that the people have had in me," said Rabbitt, whose career on the council began when the city was still largely dairy fields. "I think the people have been great . . . Over the years I've probably knocked on every door in the city and I've never ceased to be amazed at the people's interest and pride in the city."
Needham said that she, too, was grateful to the voters for giving her the opportunity to hold a post for so long. "Sometimes good things come to an end and this is one of them," she said.
Cerritos residents in 1986 approved Proposition H, a charter amendment that limits council members to two consecutive terms, but the city attorney said the measure was invalid because its language was murky and charter cities could not place such limits on council terms. Backers of the proposition first went to court after Councilman Daniel Wong filed to run for a third term in 1988 and city officials allowed his name to be placed on the ballot. A judge ruled that Wong could run because the effective date of the amendment was vague.