New York State

Yonkers overturns term limits – and the voters’ will

Yonkers power brokers extended the voter-ratified two-term mayoral limit to three terms via hurriedly called a Council vote. It’s just the latest example of Yonkers being “the City of Hills where nothing is on the level,” writes former radio host for WVOX-1460 AM Phil Reisman.

Yonkers' City Hall.

Yonkers' City Hall. Brian Logan Photography/Shutterstock

It was a backroom deal, as many things are in Yonkers politics. The proverbial fly on the wall should be called to testify.

Yes, the inside guys pulled a slick move, and upon completion gave new fuel to an old allegation: “Yonkers, the City of Hills where nothing is on the level.”

The principal beneficiary of this maneuver was Mike Spano, the sitting mayor of the state’s fourth largest city whose future was hamstrung by a city law holding him to two terms in office – or eight years maximum. Something had to be done – and fast. Spano’s shelf life was due to expire at the end of 2019.

According to conventional argument, term limits are bad for democracy because they usurp the voters’ right to “throw the bums out” on their own. Term limits are also anathema to career politicians and their cronies who wish to extend their power and patronage for as long as they can – and the legendary Spano family dynasty has been doling out jobs and political favors for eons.

Of course, the City Hall grandees and their cronies always stand on the pure side of principle. Whatever their motive, they hate the term limit law and have tried to kill it ever since it was ratified in 1994 by a frustrated body politic.

In 2001, for instance, a referendum was put forth that, if it had passed, would’ve benefited John Spencer, a Republican who was halfway through his second mayoral term. The repeal effort lost overwhelmingly, allegedly aided in part by a classic piece of Yonkers-style mischief. A misleading telephone campaign asked residents to please pull the “No” lever so that Spencer “could continue the progress” he had achieved. However, voters who bothered to carefully read the ballot question at the polls would’ve seen through the fraud; Spencer needed “Yes” votes.

Spencer cried “fraud!” but to no avail.

But this time, 17 years later, things would be different in Yonkers.

The power brokers copied a strategy employed by Mike Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York City where (like Yonkers) term limits were overwhelmingly supported by voters. Instead of doing away with term limits altogether, they would extend the limit to three terms – thus giving Spano as well as two lame-duck councilmen a chance to run again in 2019. Knowing only too well that achieving such a self-serving aim via referendum would be difficult, they instead hurriedly called for a Council vote, an option which was legal under the city’s charter.

When Bloomberg engineered his term extension in 2008, he asserted that New York City desperately needed his financial expertise to guide it through the hazards of the Great Recession. In Yonkers, the Bloomberg argument was flipped sideways. It basically went like this: With a continuing downtown renaissance aimed at attracting young professionals, declining crime rate and an 86 percent high school graduation rate, the term limited officials were so successful in changing the fortunes of the city for the better that they deserved an opportunity to stay in office to continue their professed great work.

Critics didn’t see it that way. It wasn’t on the level. They saw it as a fast and easy way to bamboozle the people. Some believed the council was motivated by a lust for fatter pension benefits that another term in office would bring.

Nevertheless, after a tortuously long public hearing was held on Oct. 30 the measure was rammed through with a 5 to 2 council vote, and then swiftly signed into law by the mayor. And boom – just like that, a free shot at four more years.

Spano is expected to take full advantage of the opportunity, contradicting what he said in 2016 that “even if they did overturn term limits, as much as I love being mayor, I wouldn’t seek a third term.”

Of course, that was then. That was before he skipped running for Westchester County executive in 2017 and later the state Senate. He has gone from Plan A to Plan B and now to Place C, which is back to the City of Hills. In a WVOX radio interview he told me, “If you can’t change your mind, what else can you change?”

Spano is the odds-on favorite to win re-election this year. The fact is he has no stiff GOP competition in a city dominated by Democrats. Four years ago, only 21 percent of the electorate even bothered to vote and Spano won a second term in a crushing landslide against Bill Nuckel, a Republican placeholder with little name recognition and no money.

Nevertheless, Spano has to get past a June 25 primary challenge from a pair of political newcomers – Ivy Reeves and Karen Beltran, an attorney who has been especially critical of Spano’s bid for a third term, calling it “offensive” and “against the will of the people.”

Spano knows that the term limit modification could be an issue. And he takes nothing for granted. “Nobody has the ability to say they’re just going to win,” he told me. “I’m going to have to go out there and work hard, show people why I think they should continue to keep me in office.”

Now, that was on the level.