Friday, July 23, 2010

West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel clinging to power in spite of term limit

It’s an old, old story now playing in re-runs in West Palm Beach, Fla. An arrogant politician feels entitled to his or her position and schemes to overturn popular term limits to keep it.

In this case, Mayor Lois Frankel has launched a petition drive to weaken West Palm Beach’s 8-year mayoral term limit. Although her earlier trial balloons were shot down, she is attempting a desperate end run around rank-and-file West Palm Beach citizens who embrace the 8-year limits.

There is little doubt that voters love term limits. This is true nationally – a 2008 poll shows 83 percent generic support for the idea – but also in Florida where an April 2009 statewide poll showed 79 percent specifically favoring Florida’s 8-year limit on the state legislature. Here in Palm Beach County, 8-year term limits for the county commission won in 2002 with 70 percent of the vote. In fact, right now there is a citizen referendum campaign under way to enact term limits in Palm Beach Gardens!

I am tempted to quote Frankel regarding a downtown development she was pushing, "Why bother with a referendum when it’s widely accepted?"

There is only one reason, of course. Lois Frankel does not want to let go to the reins of power. Yes, she could run again for mayor later under West Palm Beach law. But she couldn’t do so now with all the exceptional powers of an incumbent in a strong mayor system.

That’s right, Mayor Frankel. And that is reason number one why we have 8-year term limits in this city!

Let’s review some of the reasons that West Palm Beach has 8-year term limits and why we should keep them:

  • In 1991, West Palm Beach followed other large and growing cities in adopting a strong-mayor system of government with term limits via voter referendum. This is a system where the elected mayor is given almost total administrative authority and a clear, wide range of political independence. As turnout is very small in local elections and the mayor has massive favors to grant to local interests, a strong mayor has enormous electoral advantage that largely detaches him or her from the will of the people. Hence term limits were included as a necessary limit of strong mayor power by ensuring regular, competitive elections.

  • Under any municipal system – but particularly under a strong mayor system -- term limits topple the local fiefdoms that develop through the natural merging of interests between incumbents and special interests.

  • As cities grow and the leadership positions become more powerful, term limits are more important than ever. That is why 9 of the 10 largest cities in America have term limits.

  • Eight years is the traditional, time-tested American term limit for a good reason: A eight-year term balances the benefits of both experience and of rotation in office. Eight-year term limits are imposed on the President of the United States, Florida’s governor, the Florida legislature and the Palm Beach County Commission. What is the argument for exalting the mayor of West Palm Beach above all other politicians?

  • The strong mayor position in particular attracts careerists. It is, after all, a comfortable job, not just an opportunity for public service. For instance, in 2004, Mayor Frankel was awarded a 40% raise to today’s salary of $125,000. The paychecks come with some other considerable perks including: free health and dental care with no deductible, no premiums, no co-pays, no prescription drug costs and the ability to see any doctor with out additional cost; $400 per month car allowance; $420 per month ‘management incentive; life insurance and long-term care insurance; and a retirement plan.

  • Term limits are democratic. The strong mayor system was chosen to centralize power in order to move city projects forward, not to create a monarchy. Term limits ensure rotation in office, which necessarily introduces a broader range of experience and perspectives, permits greater citizen participation and broadens the circle of those with intimate knowledge of local government. It helps create a more engaged and informed local electorate.

  • Term limits discourage corruption. Corruption is highly correlated to tenure because secure tenure breeds the hubris and opportunity necessary for corruption to blossom. Not only that, but the closed, tight circle of a government without regular rotation is far less transparent – and hence less accountable – than a more open, term-limited one. This was a key reason why term limits for the Palm Beach County Commission was so important. Please note that the two most outspoken opponents of the 2002 campaign for county commission term limits – Mary McCarty and Warren Newell – are now in prison for corruption.
The bottom line is that at a time when the unemployment rate in Florida is more than 10 percent, it is shameful that Mayor Frankel's top priority is to save her own job. Let’s keep our 8-year term limits!