Voters will decide whether to place term limits on Santa Monica’s elected officials this November after the County Clerk officially certified a citizen initiative Thursday. The measure would limit City Council members to three terms, or twelve years, going forward.
Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, who is running for her second term this year, and Mary Marlow, chair of the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a government-watchdog organization, sponsored the measure.
“Term limits will allow fresh perspectives and new ideas in our City government,” Marlow said. “We have a situation now where incumbents almost automatically get re-elected for decades. They are frequently backed by wealthy special interests with business before the Council who pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into each election cycle.”
Marlow says only two incumbents have lost reelection over the last 25 years. Two current members, Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Pam O’Connor, have served more than twenty years on the dais. If passed, the new limits would only apply to terms going forward.
Supporters gathered more than 19,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.
No formal opposition campaign has been formed at this time. However, several councilmembers have criticized the measure, arguing it will decrease the amount of civic experience.
“I just hope voters understand that term limits mean giving up your power as a resident to vote for the person you believe best represents you,” McKeown said. “Voters already have the power to remove incumbents in favor of a better challenger. That’s called ‘elections.’ Term limits don’t give residents any new power. In truth, they limit your choices in the voting booth.”
Future City Councils may be limited in other ways besides terms after the November election. Last week, a Himmelrich and McKeown-backed initiative cleared the City Council with a 4-2 vote. The measure will require a supermajority vote to amend the city’s land use plans to increase building height or density.
The measure does not apply to individual projects like the Gehry-designed development at Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard or the redesign of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel. Rather, it restricts the Council’s ability to amend the Land Use and Circulation Element and Downtown Community Plan, which lay out the rules for development throughout the city.
Himmelrich and McKeown are both running for reelection this year. O’Connor’s term expires in November but she has not formally announced she is running.
A lawsuit that could require the city to end its at-large election system in favor of district-based elections is heading to trial July 30. It is unknown at this time how that lawsuit could impact the November race for City Council. The California Voting Rights Act bars the use of at-large elections if racially polarized voting occurs, hurting the ability of minorities to elect preferred candidates.