Santa Monica voters may have put limits on how long City Council members can serve, but incumbents won’t have to worry about being ousted until 2032.
Voters approved Measure TL, which will limit City Council members to three four-year terms after 2020, on Nov. 6. Incumbents have long enjoyed security on the Council, but residents signaled that the age of terms lasting upwards of 20 years are over as they voted both to introduce term limits and unseated an incumbent, Pam O’Connor, for only the third time in the Council’s history.
However, voters clearly weren’t completely ready to give up their incumbents. Five-term Council member and former Mayor Kevin McKeown picked up about 19 percent of the vote behind one-term incumbent Sue Himmelrich and newcomer Greg Morena.
Because Measure TL is not retroactive, longtime incumbents like McKeown and newly-minted Council members like Morena could both hold their seats for 12 years after implementation.
“There’s a consistent message that it’s very hard to unseat incumbents and I think 12 years is a very reasonable term limit,” Himmelrich said.
Supporters of the measure say its popularity with residents – it picked up more than 73 percent of the vote – mark the beginning of a new age for Council challengers and will make Council members more responsive to citizens.
“(Measure TL passing) makes it a fairer playing field, so you don’t necessarily have to have the support of people in power to win,” said Mary Marlow, chair of the Santa Monica Transparency Project, who co-sponsored the measure. “That hold on City Council elections has been broken.”
Marlow said she is not surprised that residents voted for a longtime incumbent while passing term limits and voting down another established incumbent. Other cities that have passed term limits have also voted for incumbents, she said.
“What happens in a transition election like this is you get mixed messages,” she said. “People want term limits and new faces, but they also aren’t against people who have done a good job in the past, which is the perception of (McKeown) … but this puts new scrutiny on how long people have been on Council and how they’ve been doing.”
Several Council members have criticized the measure because they said it will hinder their ability to work on long term projects. Council member Terry O’Day said he believes elections already function as term limits for incumbents and that voters in this election proved that by voting out O’Connor.
The measure’s sponsors have claimed that incumbents receive unfair access to donations from special interests, but McKeown said he disagrees.
“I won the same way I always have, relying on resident support and declining all contributions from corporations and developers,” McKeown said. “In just the next few months, I’ll press for better renter protections and relocation benefits, and bring 100 percent renewable electricity into Santa Monica homes, which I’ve been working on for two years. Sometimes good things take time, and I’m grateful to Santa Monica voters for giving me more time.”