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L.A. ELECTIONS

Bid to Ease Term Limits Ruled Illegal

A judge rejects a ballot item to extend council members' time in office, saying its pairing with lobbying reform flouts the state Constitution.

September 08, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge today removed a measure from the Nov. 7 ballot that could have eased term limits for the Los Angeles City Council, ruling that the proposal violated the state Constitution.

Judge Robert H. O'Brien found that the measure illegally combined the term limits proposal with new restrictions on lobbyists. The Constitution prohibits asking voters to decide separate issues in the same ballot question.

The ruling further inflames a controversy that has preoccupied City Hall this summer, pitting two prominent citywide officials, whose terms would not be extended, against the council, whose members would get an opportunity to seek a third term.

Because council members could be viewed as acting in their own self-interest, the civic organizations that wrote the ballot measure attempted to sweeten the term limits proposal with broader ethics reforms, only to run into a buzz saw of opposition.

"Voters who favor ethics reforms may not want increased term limits and vice-versa," O'Brien wrote in his three-page decision. "Those voters are stuck -- they must take both, or none at all."

The ruling was also a vindication for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who had warned the council that the ballot measure might not withstand a legal challenge.

But Delgadillo announced Thursday that he would appeal the decision to O'Brien and the Court of Appeal and ask for an immediate hearing. Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez said the city will argue that the single-subject rule does not apply to local ballot measures.

Timing is an issue because the county registrar's deadline for setting items for the Nov. 7 ballot is the close of business today. O'Brien or the Court of Appeal could allow the measure to go to voters, deferring the legal challenge until after the election.

The ballot measure was written by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters Los Angeles. At their request, the council voted 14 to 0 to put it on the ballot, sidestepping advice from Delgadillo to break it into two measures.

The measure would have allowed council members to serve three four-year terms instead of two. The ruling, if it stands, means that many council members will be likely to ramp up efforts to seek other elected offices. Term limits will force seven council members from office in 2009.

The ruling is the latest chapter in a years-long conversation in Los Angeles and nationwide over term limits and their effect on long-range decision making.

Proponents of term limits credit them with ensuring fresh faces in government. Critics, however, say they deny voters the chance to vote for qualified incumbents and discourage lawmakers from tackling politically difficult issues.

The suit challenging the city ballot measure was brought by Los Angeles resident Neal A. Donner, with financial backing from the national advocacy group U.S. Term Limits.

"We just want an honest discussion on term limits," said Paul Jacob, president of U.S. Term Limits. "If people decide to vote to get rid of term limits, I salute them. But we shouldn't have politicians playing all kinds of games to get rid of them, and that's what we see time and again."

A poll commissioned earlier this year by the chamber and the voters league found that a proposal to ease term limits stood a better chance of passing if it were combined with other reforms. That poll was widely circulated in City Hall.

But the judge took issue with the assertion of the measure's backers that coupling term limits and lobbyist restrictions would make for better government.

"Each of these subjects are separate from the other and present clearly different public policy questions," O'Brien wrote. "One does not encompass the other.... Term limits simply have to do with limiting the amount of time an officeholder may hold office. Ethics reform has to do with controlling conduct of officeholders while they serve the public."

Defending the ballot measure in court were the city attorney's office, an outside law firm contracted by the city, and another law firm employed by the chamber and league.

Their main defense was that the state Constitution's single-subject rule should apply only to initiatives or constitutional amendments sponsored by the state Legislature. O'Brien disagreed, ruling that the city ballot measure was akin to the initiative process and, therefore, "must comply with fundamental voter protection processes."

The ballot measure has been controversial since its introduction in late July.

Controller Laura Chick and Delgadillo were unhappy that the proposal to ease term limits didn't include their offices, while ethics commissioners were upset they didn't get to vet the lobbying reforms.

If the city is unable to submit the proposal to voters in November, the council could put another measure on the city's regular ballot in March, when voters will decide on seven council seats.

The court ruling could have political ramifications for council President Eric Garcetti, who has been pressured by his colleagues to get term limits eased or face possible loss of the presidency.

One of those said to be pressuring Garcetti, Councilman Herb Wesson, appeared to be in a forgiving mood Thursday.

"There's only one council president at a time, and his name is Eric Garcetti," Wesson said. "And I think he did the best he could. I voted for him yesterday and I'd vote for him today."

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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