By Paul Wolf
In ancient Greece, many officials were elected by random lottery and permitted to serve only a year. The Articles of Confederation that became the nation’s first constitution in 1781 limited federal legislators to a maximum of three years in Congress. That limit came from Thomas Jefferson, who expressed concern that without term limits every elected official would be in office for life.
Unfortunately, this language did not make it into the U.S. Constitution when it was drawn up several years later.
Starting with our first president, George Washington, it was an unwritten rule that the president should not serve longer than eight years. This tradition was followed for 150 years until Franklin Roosevelt ran for four terms. In 1951, the Constitution was amended to limit the president to eight years.
Today, 15 state legislatures and eight of the 10 largest cities in America have adopted term limits for their legislators or mayor, and 36 states limit the terms of governors or other elected officials.
Locally, the Town of Tonawanda limits elected officials to 12 years. Amherst, Lackawanna and Evans have an eight-year limit. Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick has introduced legislation to limit legislators to 10 consecutive years.
I support term limits and hope that the Legislature limits all county elected positions, not just the Legislature.
Personally I prefer an eight-year limit. The county executive, comptroller, district attorney and county clerk are all elected to four-year terms. An eight-year limit gives them all two terms to serve. Being an elected official should not be a career.
The public knows that running for elected office is a game that is rigged. While there are always a few rare exceptions, for the most part incumbents win 98 percent of the time. Incumbents and political parties make sure that district lines are drawn in a way that lessens competition between parties. Political parties back incumbents 98 percent of the time as well. Incumbents typically have a huge money advantage.
Incumbents have the advantage of paid staff working for them doing government work and campaign work. Incumbents have patronage employees who they helped get jobs to obtain petition signatures, man phone banks, pass out literature and attend fundraisers. Incumbents can get free publicity by writing columns in community newspapers, issuing press releases and sending out taxpayer-paid mailings.
All too often elected officials utilize their positions to benefit themselves, family members and friends. If an eight-year limit is good enough for president of the United States, it should be enough time for county legislators to serve the public and then return to private life.
Paul Wolf is an attorney and president of the Center for Reinventing Government.