Let Baltimore County voters decide on term limits for members of the County Council

By David Plymyer

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk wants to amend the Baltimore County Charter to impose a three-term limit for members of the County Council. The council should place the proposed amendment on the ballot for approval by the voters in 2022. Contrary to what his colleague Julian Jones may believe, the voters of the county are intelligent enough to decide for themselves whether or not term limits are a good idea. 

In my experience, the confluence of two phenomena common to local government makes term limits for members of the council a worthwhile step toward improving the quality of county government. The first phenomenon is the dissonance between the actions and attitudes that make a councilmember an effective legislator and those that improve his or her chances of being re-elected. The second is the addictive nature of political power and influence.

Legislating effectively vs. running for re-election

The key to retaining employment for most county employees is success in their duties; laboring diligently in the vineyards, if you will, to accomplish the tasks assigned to them. There are extraneous factors, of course, but for the most part the skills and attitudes necessary to do their jobs well are consistent with those necessary to keep their jobs.

That certainly is not always the case with elected officials at any level of government. The situation confronting Republican members of Congress is an illustration of what happens when elected officials conclude that the conduct that it takes to govern properly is not the same as the conduct that it takes to win re-election. While that example is extreme, it reflects a tension that exists to some degree at all levels of government.

An effective councilmember carefully studies the issues that come before the council, gathers and reviews all relevant information, including the views of constituents, and then tries to come to a decision that is in best long-term interests of all residents of the County without regard to partisan politics. Securing re-election, however, often involves substantially different considerations.

Councilmembers who want to get re-elected seek to retain the loyalty of campaign contributors, many of whom have special interests in legislation before the council at odds with the needs of the community in general. Decisions with short-term political benefits may be more appealing than decisions that are better for the county in the long run but not especially popular with voters. Thoughtfulness, integrity, and non-partisanship do not always pay off at the ballot box.

The addiction to power and influence

Then there is the second phenomenon. Being a member of a city or county council is not the grandest job in politics, but it does have its intangible rewards. Most councilmembers enjoy the bit of power and influence that their offices bring; they like being at the center of attention. I have spoken to some of them who realized that only after they left office and the telephone stopped ringing.  

There is nothing wrong with feeling flattered that others value and solicit your support. It is part of being human. We discount the potentially destructive role of plain old human nature at our peril, however. The checks and balances in government exist in large part to limit the damage from human impulses and frailties, including our vulnerability to the addictive nature of political power.     

Put the addictive nature of political power together with the fact that the actions and attitudes necessary to retain that power are not the same as those necessary to govern effectively, and a substantial risk that bad governance will take root is created. Term limits are a reasonable way to mitigate that risk.

Who is insulting whom?

Councilman Jones finds the term limit proposal “insulting to the citizens” because it would deprive them of the option of returning a person to the council for as many terms as they like. According to the report by WYPR, he intends to vote against placing the proposed amendment on the ballot. In my opinion, he is insulting citizens by implying that they are incapable of deciding for themselves whether to adopt term limits for members of the council. 

Some citizens oppose term limits because it would force effective members off the council after the specified number of terms. There is truth to that, just as there was to the observation by former French president Charles de Gaulle that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” The county desperately needs more citizens engaged in local government and willing to run for office, and term limits encourage that. My belief that, on balance, the benefits of term limits far outweigh any downside is supported by recent county history.

While there certainly were accomplishments during the administration of former county executive Kevin Kamenetz, the opaqueness that he brought to county government hid a decided tilt toward special interests, especially developers. Long-term land use and capital improvement planning was all but abandoned, a failure that will haunt the county for decades.  

Mr. Kamenetz’s reputation for rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies, through the county budget and otherwise, ensured a compliant county council. Democratic members of the council concerned about their political futures were loath to stand up to him. In summary, please do not point to Baltimore County as an example of the advantages of allowing people to turn a seat on a city or county council into a career.  Limiting the number of terms of members of the county council will not eliminate all of the problems with county government. Let the voters decide if it at least will fix some of them.

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