Term limits back on table

With many among them up for a third or fourth re-election in 2014 and 2015, members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough 

Assembly are looking to remove citizen-created term limits from borough law this summer.

The assembly Tuesday floated a proposed ordinance seeking to amend a 2007 citizen initiative limiting them to two consecutive terms without taking a six-month break before a third.

Assembly members voted to hold a public hearing on the ordinance and set it for July 2. 

“My vote for a public hearing is neither support or against,” District 8 Assemblyman Bill Smith of Homer said. 

“They always do [this],” said Fred Sturman, a longtime Soldotna resident, recent mayoral candidate and citizen who fought for borough assembly terms limits. 

The assembly seems to think they know better than the voters who created and supported the law, he said.

Ordinance 2013-20, if approved next month, will be the second assembly action to repeal the popular citizen initiative setting assembly term limits in 20 years. A 2007 initiative won voter approval 52.75 percent to 47.25 percent. 

In 1993, voters favored assembly term limits by a margin just shy of 2 to 1. Six years later, without seeking voter approval, the assembly repealed the law before it could limit anyone seeking a longer stay in their seat.

Alaska law prevents the borough from changing or removing a law resulting from a citizen initiative for two years. 

In 2009 the assembly changed some language in the ordinance so that partial service of a term did not count as a full term in relation to term limits.

Assembly Vice President Hal Smalley said voters should be allowed to decide if they want a candidate in office for multiple terms instead of having term limits imposed by law. Smalley wrote the proposed ordinance. To those who say the assembly is acting against the public call for term limits, he responds, “Let those people vote me out.”

Smalley is up for a fourth term in 2014 and is cognizant voters approved term limits, but believes those limits are a “disservice” to borough citizens.

“The assumption is that we want to hold the seat forever,” said District 9 Assemblyman Mako Haggerty, who represents the southern Kenai Peninsula. “I don’t believe in term limits.”

Haggerty went on to say that other people in other districts should not tell his district who can or cannot represent them.

The ordinance language claims that the public lost out when term limits forced several assembly members with years of experience from borough government. Seeing the borough as a multi-million dollar business, Smalley said that 51 years of combined assembly experience was lost to the law with the first three assemblymen affected. A corporation wouldn’t do that, he said.

Nikiski resident James Price says the original idea for assembly term limits rests in a desire to have citizens as public servants rather than career politicians. Price is a leading member of the Alliance for Concerned Taxpayers, which created the 2007 term limit law and fought the borough through to the Alaska Supreme Court to enforce the new limits.

Smalley’s ordinance addresses Price’s concern directly by claiming in the body of the proposed law, “The most effective way to limit terms is to vote on Election Day.” It goes on to say that “… assembly members live and work in the community in which they serve and therefore are not out of touch with their constituents.” 

Although a 2011 Alaska Supreme Court decision found that term limits do not disenfranchise voters or candidates, the proposed ordinance language claims term limits “infringe upon the right to vote for a candidate of choice.”

“It’s limiting, if a person can’t run,” because of term limits, Smalley said.

If approved this summer, the change will not affect the three assembly members facing re-election in 2013; all are in their first term of office. However, repealing the citizen-driven law would open 2014 to optional fourth consecutive terms for Smith and Smalley. A third consecutive term for Charlie Pierce (District 5)  also becomes possible. Both Sue McClure (District 6) and Haggerty would become eligible to run for third terms in 2015.

Assembly President Linda Murphy promised to leave office at her determined retirement age. None on the assembly have a personal agenda regarding the move to repeal term limits, she said. 

“When I am 68, I am out of here,” Murphy said.

The amendments might come too close to the general election for the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers to gather the money and forces and get a new term limit ordinance on the fall ballot.

The history of the argument between the alliance and the assembly is long and court filled. Originally, the 2007 ordinance sought to also limit the terms of school board members but that was deemed unconstitutional by the Alaska Supreme Court. The court did find that assembly terms could be limited, but not beginning with that same 2007 election — nearly half the assembly would have become immediately ineligible for the offices they’d just won.

A public hearing on the matter is set for July 2. 

Greg Skinner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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