A not-as-long goodbye

On 60 Minutes last night, President Obama talked about how he felt coming Nancy Oatesto the end of his legally allotted two terms and whether he wished he could serve a third. He said, as all incumbents do, that he was proud of what he had accomplished so far in office and that there was more to do and he’d like to be part of the work ahead. Then he admitted it was “bittersweet” to be looking ahead to his final year in office. He spoke eloquently about how it was time for new leadership, “new legs,” new energy and new perspectives.

The president captured what so many of us feel when we have to leave work we love.

I have served on boards that require its members to roll off after serving one term, and stay off for at least a term before regaining eligibility to be re-elected. One board term that ended recently was three years long; every year, a third of the board was replaced.

I confess, the first time the board met after my term had ended, I felt sad not to be among them. I had bonded with my colleagues and liked and respected them. The decisions we had made had an impact on the organization we served, and I enjoyed the deliberative process. But it was best for the organization to have a steady influx of fresh viewpoints, new enthusiasm and a change of interpersonal dynamics.

Town Council, and by extension the community, would benefit from turnover on a regular basis.

One moment, above all else, solidified my belief in term limits for Town Council members. It came as Ed Harrison voted against Obey Creek and apologized to his colleagues on the dais, saying he felt he had to listen to his constituents.

What has happened to Town Council that a member has to beg forgiveness from other council members for representing the best interests of the community members who elected him to office? When a decision-making group becomes too static, its members’ allegiance grows stronger to one another than to the organization they serve.

Some argue that voters determine term limits by voting elected officials out of office when it’s time for them to move on. But given that as few as about 11% of registered voters show up at the polls for Chapel Hill municipal elections, that means our town leaders are chosen by as few as 5.6% of the populace, who often are political insiders or people who expect to need council’s backing for a project.

Non-voters I’ve talked to say they stay away from the polls because they don’t believe their vote matters. I’ve encouraged them to vote and see.

George Washington got it right when he said that elected officials should, after serving a predetermined time period, return to life as ordinary citizens. Human nature being what it is, ceding such a role to someone else is hard to do. That’s why we need an ordinance to spell out when it’s time to say goodbye.
– Nancy Oates

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8 Comments

  1. bonnie hauser

     /  October 12, 2015

    Well said. I have to add that the local penchant for appointments is awe-inspiring. Consider Bill Strom’s carefully timed exit forcing an appointment of Donna Bell or Ellie Kinnaird’s sudden resignation and interest in placing her own successor.

    I’m glad to see so many good candidates running for the town council and CHCCS Board. I do hope to voters turn out. There’s much at stake.

  2. Minerva

     /  October 12, 2015

    Nancy, Ed Harrison is one of the longest serving members of the Town Council. You realize that, right?

    Below are the current council members and their first year of election. It seems to me we’ve had a pretty decent turnover, with 3 members serving less than one term and a vacant seat that will guarantee at least one new face joins the council this year. Do we really have a problem when nearly half of council (or more) could have served one term or less after this year’s election?

    Jim Ward – 1999 (in fourth term, running for fifth)
    Ed Harrison – 2001 (in fourth term)
    Mark Kleinschmidt – 2001 (two terms on CHTC, three terms as mayor (but only 2-year terms), running for fourth)
    Sally Greene – 2003 (with a break from 2011-2013) (two terms, break, appointed, now in third elected term)
    Donna Bell – 2009 (appointed 2009, elected to first term in 2011, running for second elected term)
    Lee Storrow – 2011 (one term, running for second)
    Maria Palmer – 2013 (in first term)
    George Cianciolo – 2013 (in first term)

  3. anon

     /  October 12, 2015

    I think Nancy missed on this one. For local elections term limits are not nearly as good an idea as for federal offices where tons of money is needed. And leads to money being more important than representing constituents.

    as pointed out, Ed seems to represent the pubic better and has been in office a long time…

    the real question is why was everyone else so quick to dismiss the public and board members input

  4. Nancy

     /  October 12, 2015

    Minerva and Anon —

    I do understand Ed has been in office a long time, and I certainly value his contributions over the years. I doubt that 14 years ago he was apologizing to his colleagues for doing his job. His length of good service supports my point: In arguing for term limits, I’m not saying that people who have served a long time have given bad service. Only that after a set time, best to make room for new perspectives. I’m sure Ed, Jim, Mark and Sally would continue to stay active in shaping the town and contributing their expertise to issues, even when they are no longer council members. And their successors will value and respect that input. For all the reasons I’ve stated in my post, I believe the town is best served by regular turnover in council membership.

  5. Gerry Cohen

     /  October 17, 2015

    For what it’s worth it would take a State Constiutional amendment to have term limits for any office
    -Gerry Cohen

  6. Nancy

     /  October 17, 2015

    We’ve certainly had amendments for far less worthy causes.

  7. Gerry Cohen

     /  October 17, 2015

    Nancy I agree on that !

  8. Gerry, I was told you blamed Chapel Hill for the loss of zoning protections at the State level. Can you source your claim that the legislature’s upset towards Chapel Hill and its residents led to them changing the law on zoning challenge petitions?

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