Proposals would end maximum of 2 terms
Charter Commission members will weigh measures affecting City Council elections
More than 13 years ago, Honolulu voters approved term limits for their City Council representatives and the mayor.
But with an increasing number of states and cities across the country reassessing whether term limits work, the issue could be on the ballot again this November.
In 1992, Honolulu voters approved a maximum of two consecutive four- year terms for City Council members -- and a two-term limit for the mayor, a proposal aimed at then six-term Mayor Frank Fasi.
Tomorrow, the Charter Commission will discuss two separate but nearly identical proposals to eliminate Council term limits. At the same time, it will look to impose term limits on the elected city prosecutor. Current Prosecutor Peter Carlisle is in the midst of his third term.
The commission meets at City Hall at 2 p.m. -- but don't expect a quick decision. Several hearings are expected before a decision is made to put a measure on the ballot.
Term limits came into favor in Hawaii at the same time similar legislation was being approved by voters nationwide. Congressional term limits have been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Today, there is a feeling that term limits might not be working as intended -- and could perhaps prevent good people from staying in office.
Idaho lawmakers, for example, repealed voter-approved term limits in 1994 on state and local elected officials, becoming the first jurisdiction in the nation to overturn term limits.
"Obviously, politicians don't like term limits," said University of Hawaii-Hilo political science professor Rick Castberg. "I think it's attractive to the general electorate because they think there's more turnaround and turnover and gives more people opportunities."
The Honolulu League of Women Voters opposed term limits in 1992. Jean Aoki, who was chairwoman of the league's Charter Review Committee at the time, said they studied how long council members served prior to the ballot question.
"Looking back, there was no indication that people were serving even longer than 10 years -- not too many people, very few. There was constant turnover. Beyond that, term limits eliminated a lot of very good legislators," Aoki said.
"There needs to be some continuity, knowledge of the past, historical development of issues. You can't afford to lose all of that," she said.
She said turnover of elected officials was due to a number of reasons, including the desire to run for another office.
But Castberg said it might be too soon to determine whether the term limits are working as they should and whether term limits made a significant impact on Hawaii's political races.
"The general impetus of term limits is to get rid of the dead wood. The jury's still out on that," he said. "I think it would take a fairly long period of time to sit down and come up with some kind of criteria to use and then analyze all the material."
Members of the current Honolulu City Council who are running for what could be their final four-year term are split over term limits.
"You should bring in new people because you get new ideas, new enthusiasm," Councilman Gary Okino said.
Councilman Charles Djou credits term limits with giving the Council a clean slate after a string of debilitating scandals, which were topped by the jailing of two of its members, Rene Mansho and Andy Mirikitani.
"Nobody runs for office the very first time for the power. ... You run for the principle of it all, but if you stay there too long, the power becomes more important than the principle," Djou said. "And that's part of the reason why we had a problem with the Council right before the one I served in."
Aoki believes that without term limits there are sufficient checks and balances to get politicians involved in scandals out of office. She points to the 1985 recall of three City Council members who switched political parties midway through their terms.
Recall efforts were under way for Mansho and Mirikitani, but they were sentenced before the process was complete.
"Generally speaking, I think we have term limits in the sense where if the public doesn't feel you're doing what you need to be doing, the ballot box is the term limit," said Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, who is up for re-election this year.
But Dela Cruz has a specific reason for advocating the elimination of term limits.
In 1998, voters approved staggering Council terms so that five members are up for election at one time and the rest during another election. This year, four of the Council seats are up for re-election.
Dela Cruz said because of term limits and staggered terms, there could be a problem when the Council district lines are redrawn beginning in 2010.
"It's going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of different scenarios to figure out how can you maintain term limits and staggered terms yet include reapportionment," he said.
Dela Cruz said that the Charter Commission should take up the measure now because there will not be another Charter Commission convened until after reapportionment.
Djou said that if a proposal to eliminate term limits makes it to the ballot, the public will not take kindly to it.
"I think the public already is upset with city government with the amount of taxes that have gone up. The electorate is mad at us about how much taxes we're sucking in, and they'll get doubly mad that the guy that's raising all the taxes wants to stay there forever," he said.