Let Grandfather Go

Let Grandfather Go

Let Grandfather Go
March 3, 2014

Poor freshmen. Always get the short end of the stick. 

Take the 21 freshman members of the New York City Council. While these women and men are limited by law to serve two terms, 18 of their veteran colleagues can run for a third term in 2017. 

A third term? How is that possible, you ask? Didn’t New York City voters approve a referendum in November 2010 that for the third time since 1993 unmistakably affirmed that the will of the people is to limit the city’s elected officials to two terms? 

Funny thing about that referendum. In typical cynical fashion, the Charter Revision Commission that brought the term limits referendum to the ballot allowed one last outrage to be slipped into the fine print. What very few of the 74 percent of voters who cast their ballots to restore term limits realized is that they were simultaneously signing off on a grandfather clause allowing any officeholder elected on or before Nov. 2, 2010—Election Day that year—to run for a third term. This poison pill was, of course, a brazen giveaway to a host of sitting Council members and other city electeds, including the nine members of the City Council who are just beginning their third term (Mendez, Garodnick, Dickens, Vacca, Arroyo, Palma, Mealy, Gentile and Mark-Viverito) and those who are eligible but have not yet had to seek it (Crowley, Ferreras, Ulrich, Eugene, Ignizio, Greenfield). But it was also an appalling welcome mat for the members of the club newly elected the day the people thought they were finally putting an end to the Council’s shenanigans: Chin, Rodríguez, Cabrera, Koo, Weprin, Dromm, Van Bramer, Koslowitz, Levin, Rose, Williams and Lander. 

Shortly after the 2010 vote, I, as the executive director of the good government group New York Civic, and the organization’s founder, Henry Stern, set about forming a nonpartisan coalition to push for a public referendum to repeal the grandfather clause. While that effort failed because we were not able to raise the money necessary to collect enough signatures to force a referendum onto the ballot, we were joined by a number of the city’s leaders—most notably, Eric Ulrich, the lone councilman to break rank and champion the cause. Back then Ulrich explained to the Examiner, “The Charter Revision Commission created this loophole for me and my colleagues … That’s why I am acting, contrary to my self-interest, to restore the trust of the voters.” 

Sadly, that trust has never been restored—but the fight to do so need not come to an end. Ulrich, plus the 21 new Council members, together with Andy King, Ruben Wills and Donovan Richards—who were all elected in specials following the 2010 vote and thus are ineligible for the third term—make 25, one shy of the 26 votes necessary to repeal the grandfather clause legislatively. Perhaps Dan Garodnick, who broke his pledge not to seek a third term, could be shamed into becoming No. 26, or maybe one or more of the disaffected third termers (you know who you are!) will take out their ire by doing so. 

Dear freshman, since the third term was all about shameless self-interest, I would be remiss in pointing out that if you were to deny your 18 colleagues a third term—as your constituents clearly would want you to do—you would also enjoy the happy consequence of significantly moving up the pecking order in 2017. 

Who knows? Maybe one of you could be Speaker. Food for thought, eh? 

Morgan Pehme