Saturday, February 27, 2010

West Palm Beach: The city's not about one person

When former West Palm Beach mayor Nancy Graham reached the end of her second term, she she initially ran to the courts to circumvent the 8-year term limit. The she thought better of it: "The city's not about one person," she said.

Fast forward to 2010. Another big ideas (and big budgets!) mayor, Lois Frankel, is coming to the end of her second term and seeking a way to keep her job. Her chosen vehicle is the city's charter review commission, which is a 5-member board created to review and suggest changes to the city's system of government. In January she stacked the commission with four of her devotees who are said to be impartially weighing the benefits of a Frankel third term.

"I have no ulterior motive," Frankel told the Palm Beach Post. "The committee was not put together to look at (term limits)."

Yeah, right.

She didn't fool the Post, nor anyone else. As the Post points out in an excellent editorial on the subject, "If her push to end term limits proves to be unpopular, the mayor has a backup plan that would give her an additional 20 months in office. That plan calls for timing mayoral elections with presidential elections. Instead of leaving office in March 2011, Mayor Frankel would stay until November 2012."
The idea of a charter review commission is a legitimate one, and indeed it behooves the city to review its new (well, since 1991) strong mayor system. Term limits, among their other benefits, help limit the power of the strong executive, by ensuring that the significant power of this position cannot be used to secure a job for life. The strong mayor system was intended to centralize authority in order to move city projects forward, not to create a monarchy.

Frankel is out of touch enough to be shocked at the pushback she is getting. The press, fellow city commissioners (including, of course, potential mayoral candidates) and citizen activists lept into action as soon as the first charter review commission meeting was announced. As a result, the first meeting was cancelled about an hour before it was scheduled to start.

It is not late for Mayor Frankel to tuck the burst trial balloon in her pocket and, with dignity, serve out her last year as mayor. She can always run again in the future after sitting out a term if she wishes, albeit without the powers of incumbency that make a low-turnout reelection a formality.

Nonetheless, West Palm Beach citizens are laying defensive groundwork just in case their popular term limits law is assaulted.