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Wish for Term Limits Is Clear--Impact Is Less Certain


The decision by voters to limit Los Angeles elected officials to two terms in office will dramatically alter the face of City Hall, but the changes will not come about until the next century and there is disagreement about whether they will translate into better government.

Term-limit advocates say the overwhelming passage of Charter Amendment 2, by a margin of 65% to 35%, signifies a growing disenchantment among voters toward elected representatives and means that local politicians have lost one of their greatest perks--the power of incumbency that enabled many of them to hold office for life.

"This effectively terminates long-term tenure in city government," said freshman Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sponsored the amendment. "No more Joel Wachses, no more Zev Yaroslavskys, no more John Ferraros, no more Ernani Bernardis . . . no more Tom Bradleys."

Critics of term limits maintain that the only thing such limits will ensure is a regular cast of new faces--not better government.

"Things are going to change for the worse," said eight-term Councilman Marvin Braude, who opposes limiting terms. "It will give more power to the special interests and the bureaucrats whose terms are not limited and will take power away from the people, who should be able to vote for whomever they want."

The term-limit measure passed in an election that proved to be the toughest for City Hall incumbents in 16 years, with Councilwomen Joan Milke Flores and Joy Picus forced into runoffs by lesser-known rivals.

Of the two term-limit initiatives on the ballot, the less stringent measure won out. Charter Amendment 2, which allows all current officeholders two additional four-year terms, will apply to the mayor, city clerk, city attorney and city controller, as well as to council members.

A rival measure, advocated by mayoral candidate Richard Riordan, would have given one more term to those officeholders who are up for election in 1995. It was also approved by voters, 67% to 33%, but received about 3,500 fewer votes than Charter Amendment 2 and therefore will not go into effect.

Although it will be a long time before current officeholders are forced to retire, the imposition of term limits prompted discussion about what the city faces in the years to come.

USC historian Kevin Starr called term limits "a return to Thomas Jefferson's ideal that there ought to be replenishment in government every 10 years."

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe expressed fear that forcing out incumbents will prompt endless swapping of political offices. "What we might see is musical chairs with the same old characters jumping from one level to another," she speculated.

Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said it will take decades for voters to determine whether term limits bring about more accountability in government.

"Will it change the way politicians do things? I don't know," he said. "Will it change the dynamics of the council? Definitely. You don't have any more lifetime politicians. But accountability is the key and term limits don't guarantee that."

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