As City Council’s fall session opened this week some of the city’s longest-standing City Council members return to chambers. Most have near-guarantees that they’ll be back in 2020, following a general election that’s expected to reinforce the primary’s results.
That includes Council President and the 5th District representative Darrell L. Clarke, who has served for 20 years; and the 10th District’s Brian O’Neill, who has served for 39 years.
Not returning for another term are at-large Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who has served for 19 years, but did not run again, and the 3rd District’s Jannie Blackwell, who has served for 27 years, but was unseated in the primary by political newcomer Jamie Gauthier.
The reelection of long-tenured City Council members shouldn’t surprise anyone with even a passing knowledge of Philadelphia politics: In the last 35 years, only 13 incumbent Council members who had served a full four-year term have lost their seats to a challenger.
Philadelphia is one of the only big cities in the country with term limits for the mayor, but not for City Council. New York, Houston, and Los Angeles all have council term limits.
In April 2017, former mayor and governor Ed Rendell called for changing the city’s Home Rule Charter and imposing a two-term limit for every elected Philadelphia official — controller, district attorney, and Council among them. “We would have a more effective and efficient city government if we did that,” he said.
At-large Councilman Allan Domb agrees with Rendell and in February introduced a bill that would limit City Council members to three consecutive terms, or 12 years total. Many long-standing members of Council have said publicly that they will not support the bill, including Council’s longest-tenured member, O’Neill, who called the legislation, "antidemocratic and anti-American.”
Domb and Reynolds Brown debate here: Is it time for Philadelphia to impose term limits for City Council?
Thriving businesses find that the best ideas come from those who have already tested and assured the outcomes to achieve ultimate success. In a similar fashion, our city government regularly conducts best practice studies to examine policies, procedures, and initiatives implemented by other cities so that we can make Philadelphia more efficient and effective. The same holds true for instituting term limits for Philadelphia’s City Council members.
We need to be looking at several forward-thinking cities, such as Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and Houston that already have term limits. They implemented this measure to create a more efficient and transparent government. It is time for Philadelphia to follow suit and allow citizens to have more control of their government.
The legislation I proposed a few months ago would amend the Home Rule Charter to restrict Council members to serve no more than three terms starting next year. In order to amend the charter, the resolution would require voter approval as a referendum on the ballot. This allows the voters to have a clear voice and decide.
The reasons behind term limits are simple. They allow for fresh ideas and increase diversity in candidates, creating a more engaging democratic process. City Council currently brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to City Hall, and it is important that we continually allow those who might have advanced backgrounds — whether it is in education, technology, or health care — to feel they can have a seat at the legislative table.
Term limits move officials to make bold policy decisions in seeking solutions to our most pressing issues, providing for more public debate. We take on specific issues or causes on behalf of those we serve. Our constituents deserve nothing less than positive results, especially at times when answers are needed the most.
It requires officials to make the most of their time with a finite deadline. Constituents expect us to hit the ground running from day one — just like any other job. While we are all experts within our own backgrounds and industries, we need to quickly learn trades from each other that will allow us to work as a team.
Finally, term limits hold officials accountable while providing newly elected with more influence. Not only should new members learn from tenured officials but they need to have a strong voice and assume leadership roles when necessary.
We already know term limits are an instrumental part of our democratic process. Our mayor is defined by term limits. Officials in higher state offices such as attorney general, auditor general and the governor, have to maximize their time to be successful. And of course, the U.S. president, who must held to the highest level of accountability, is bound by term limits.
I want to work with my colleagues to discuss this legislation and allow it to be debated publicly. We owe our constituents that much.
Voters have an opportunity to choose who they want in office. Let’s also give them the option to decide how long their leaders can serve.
Allan Domb is an at-large member of City Council. He was elected to Council in 2016.
When considering the efficacy of legislative term limits, it behooves us to first examine the history behind the passage of landmark legislation.
The Civil Right Act (1964), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), and the Affordable Care Act (2009) are among the most important pieces of legislation passed by Congress in my lifetime. Each of these transformational bills expanded critical, fundamental rights and protections for Americans and challenged defenders of the status quo in our society. Each bill was expertly crafted, hard-fought and won only after multiple rounds of painstaking negotiation. Unsurprisingly, each bill was introduced by a veteran legislator.
In matters of public policy, we should be guided by the facts.
Fact: The Philadelphia Charter puts power in the hands of voters to choose their legislators. The Philadelphia Charter’s position on term limits follows the structure set out in United States Constitution. As we all know, the Constitution established term limits for the presidency through the 22nd Amendment but does not and has never established term limits for Congress, the legislative branch.
Why? With term limits, the legislative body can and will lose good and seasoned leaders who have a broad range of experience with how government works. Oftentimes that experience is necessary to see through a complicated policy effort.
For example, my office worked in conjunction with then Council member and now Council President Darrell L. Clarke to implement the merger of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Due to the complex and varied vested interests and stakeholders (both proponents and opponents) to engage, encourage, support, and persuade, it took our offices eight years of dedicated, strategic work and follow-through to accomplish this goal. Our institutional knowledge enabled us to get this major piece of unprecedented legislation completed. As council members, time was required to work with the administration, park groups, and the foundation community to ensure a mutually agreed upon resolution.
Establishing term limits would inevitably see a decrease in the number of experienced lawmakers willing to take a deep dive into complicated or thorny policy issues, knowing that they may not develop the subject matter expertise and relationships needed to foster real change. Instead of focusing on dynamic legislation, lawmakers would spend much of their time during their last term in office worrying about the next job opportunity.
Furthermore, we must remember that imposing term limits on legislators does not create the same term limits for others within the political system — including private interests, lobbyists, political donors, influencers, and leaders of major institutions and departments. Amy Gutmann, for instance, has been in charge of the University of Pennsylvania since 2004, and there are countless other examples of leaders who have wielded their influence for decades, including the leadership of many major media outlets. In essence, term limits will create a revolving door of freshman legislators while keeping in place veteran lobbyists.
Finally, unlike leaders in the private or nonprofit sector, each member of the legislative branch must be responsive to the will of the voters. In the most recent federal election, Americans elected 117 women to Congress, many of whom replaced incumbents in order to earn their right to represent constituents in America’s most significant legislative body. Therefore, we already have term limits. They are called elections — aka democracy.
Blondell Reynolds Brown is an at-large member of City Council. She was elected to Council in 2000.