Term limits necessary in municipal politics

First published: September 24, 2005

With 14 months until the next municipal election, Cobourg mayor, Peter Delanty, announced last week, he intends to run again for mayor.

It seems rather strange he would make an announcement this far in advance. There is plenty of time, yet Mr. Delanty decides, out of the blue without a detailed explanation, to make this public. Normally, municipal election season starts in September. Occasionally, there are a few who will announce before the summer, but the vast majority says nothing until after Labour Day.

Mr. Delanty’s move is intriguing, making it great fodder for political junkies.

Normally, a politician would not offer such information so far ahead. At least, it would make sense not to give any indication of a desire to seek office.

However, if you are not running, it is quite different. Take Port Hope Mayor Rick Austin’s announcement recently he is not going to run. After 20 years of public service, he made the choice and let it be known. Now that seems right. It gives time for those interested in being his replacement time to mull it over, strategize, and vie for the position. By stepping aside, it means the way is clear.

This is good for many reasons, but it also has its drawbacks. Mr. Austin may be perceived as a lame duck for the next year. As decisions come before council, there may be those who feel he may not be worried about the long-term consequences because he will not be around to deal with any fallout come election time. There may also be those who are cynical enough to believe his decisions over the next year will be driven by a desire to leave a legacy. But as a venerable councilor, mayor and county warden, it is highly unlikely he is truly worried in that regard.

But. Mr. Delanty’s move is a mystery.

There may be some advantage in coming out this early. He clearly establishes his agenda for the next year, demonstrating his has an agenda for the future, as well as the present. He also kills any speculation and rumours, which could prove damaging. In this way, he can be perceived to demonstrate leadership and clear thinking.

On a more sinister note, Mr. Delanty may be trying to scare off any competition. By throwing his hat in the ring, he is sending a message to those considering a run that it is going to be a tough race. Incumbency is a key factor in winning in politics. Once in office, it is very difficult to remove someone, as political history show us.

Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner was sniffing around for support for a shot at the mayor’s chair. While he has made no official announcements, he wasn’t counting anything out either. His health is a factor, but he was bending the ear of influential people within Cobourg to feel out his chances. This may complicate the landscape for him, if he was planning on making his move.

And the same may hold true for others, who are sounding the depths of the political waters.

But the move could easily backfire for Mr. Delanty.

As matters come before council, will the public begin to believe any decision Mr. Delanty makes is only being done to pave his way to re-election? Will he be thinking about the town’s future or his own? This will be the question on many minds. It may make his job even harder than it was before. Mr. Delanty does not always respond well under pressure, as citizens watched during the Mr. Sub debate last spring. His convoluted logic about protecting heritage while facilitating growth was not well received.

The whole consideration of Mr. Delanty’s future and Mr. Austin’s retirement raises a even more perplexing question: How long should a municipal politician serve?

There are proposals before the Ontario government to extend a municipal term to four years. But that point aside, there is a reasonable case to be made for limiting the number of terms one person can hold office in succession.

Far too often we see those who sit on council for decades, Mr. Austin being an example of this phenomena. Take people like former Alnwick Township Reeve Flex MacMillan He held office for more than 30 years. He was a stalwart on county council and held a tight grip on affairs in the township. There were many who tried, but nobody could beat him in an election. The same holds true for Bill Finley, mayor of Alnwick/Haldimand.

But before anyone gets too upset, there are those who will say these long-serving politicians make great contributions over time. Certainly, it could be argued these people win elections because the citizens vote them into power. But, it may not be true. The longer someone is in power, the harder it gets to beat him or her. Remember the incumbency rule. And after a while, these people can start to believe their position is a right, not a responsibility.

A three term maximum would make the most sense. The first term is spent getting to know the system and how municipal government works. The first year of an inaugural term citizens shouldn’t expect too much. By the second year, a councilor is becoming an effective member. And by the end of the first term, a councillor is usually pumping away. It seems only natural to give these kinds of councilors a second chance by re-electing them. This would give them six years on council.

By the third term, a councilor can seek a higher position on council. With experience on their side and a record of service, the deputy mayor and mayor’s position are reasonable aspirations. But to stay on council is truly pushing. Citizens see this when they watch as councilors start to display the obvious signs: a disinterest in public input; putting process before people; and playing political games as opposed to getting things done.

There would be another advantage in limiting the number of terms. It would open the way for others. Look at the American system where a president can only serve two terms. Those who aspire to the position can know with some assurance they can have a shot at the job.

Sure, there are those who will argue there isn’t enough people interested in serving in political life and those in our midst who wish to serve the public should do so unencumbered. But, maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons nobody is interested, is they feel they don’t stand a chance.

Municipal term limits make sense.

And in the meantime, with 14 months to go, it is going to be a very interesting indeed.

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