In the final action of its longest meeting so far this year, the council voted 7-2 — with Pat Burt and Greg Schmid dissenting — to have the Office of the City Attorney draft language for two potential City Charter amendments pertaining to council terms. One change, which was first proposed last week by Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Gail Price, would extend the number of four-year council terms from two to three. Another one, proposed by Mayor Greg Scharff shortly before the meeting concluded at 11:30 p.m., would eliminate term limits entirely.
Council members didn't make any decisions about changing the rules for terms (decisions that in any event would be subject to voter approval), but several voiced support for eliminating term limits. Chief among them was Councilman Larry Klein, who served on the council for much of the 1980s before returning to the council in 2005. He is currently in his second term.
Klein called term limits "basically undemocratic" and "insulting for electorates," who always have the option of voting out an incumbent if they don't like how he or she is performing.
"You are depriving voters of their right to choose or not choose that person," Klein said.
(In fact, since 1979, three Palo Alto incumbents have been voted out of office — Roy Clay, Sandy Eakins and Nancy Lytle.)
Shepherd, Kniss and Price argued that extending term limits would benefit the city because it would allow council members to build up seniority and obtain leadership positions on various regional boards, including ones pertaining to air quality, water, utilities, transportation and housing mandates. Kniss said Monday that it takes time for local officials to make an impact on county, state or federal levels and to obtain high positions on boards such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which doles out grants for transportation projects throughout the Bay Area.
"There are positions at the local, state and national level ... where unless you're there for a certain period of time, you're not going to rise to a leadership role that you might aspire to or that we hope you'd be able to serve," Kniss said.
Shepherd concurred and gave the example of Mountain View City Councilman Michael Kasperzak, who termed out in 2007 and lost his position as president of the League of California Cities. He later ran again for office and, after being re-elected to the Mountain View council, reclaimed his position in the League.
"Cities like ours that have term limits just never rise to the top in order to help work through some of the major policy issues that are facing cities of our size," Shepherd said.
Their colleagues had some concerns. Councilman Greg Schmid was the only member who said he would oppose extending or eliminating term limits. Incumbency is valuable, he acknowledged, but so is diversity. Bringing new people to serve in the government is as valuable as the knowledge that comes with incumbency.
"Maybe it's advantageous when you go to regional bodies, but our prime role isn't to regional bodies but to the people in the city and to reflect the people in the city."
Councilman Marc Berman said that while he supports having the language drafted for further consideration, his mind is far from made up. Opportunities for incumbents to stay in office longer, Berman said, "inherently inhibit new people from getting elected to the council."
"Something I support is diversity of all sorts — age, gender, ethnicity — on the council," Berman said. "Something like this (extending terms limits) doesn't help."
The conversation about democracy and representation had a tinge of irony, occurring as it did shortly after 11 p.m., in the sixth hour of the council's meeting and in front of a nearly empty Council Chambers. Burt and Holman both said that while they are open to deliberating on the topic further, the discussion should be held at a future date.
"It would be appropriate to have this discussion with the public having ample opportunity to weigh in and participate in it," Burt said. "I think this is a community decision, not just a council decision."
"I don't think it's the time to bring it up," Holman said. "There's no one here."
Their proposal to continue the discussion in the early fall died by a 3-6 vote, with only Schmid joining them.
City Attorney Molly Stump said that the earliest date that a charter change could be brought to the voters under state law would be in June 2014.
Palo Alto voters initially approved limiting council members to two four-year terms in 1992.
The council Monday was also scheduled to consider proposals to reduce the size of the council from nine to seven members and to have an earlier swearing-in date for newly elected members earlier. But recognizing the lateness of the hour, the council decided to discuss these changes at a later date.