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Karl Grossman: Term Limits A Good Idea?

Tue, Jun 14, 2011

Opinions

By Karl Grossman

Are term limits for elected officials a good idea after all? In the case of bad officials, they’re obviously great—they force them out of government. But what about good officials?

Two Suffolk County legislators—Jon Cooper and Vivian Viloria-Fisher—could be considered in that category. Both have been creative and innovative. It was Cooper who introduced the Suffolk law banning hand-held use of cell phones while driving, which became state law. And he authored the first-in-the-U.S. prohibition on the dietary supplement ephedra, which went national. He and Viloria-Fisher have been strong on the environment. They’ve used their experience well in criticizing the county administration.

But both are term-limited and can’t run for re-election. After six two-year terms as legislators, after 2011 ends they’ll be out.

In the 1990s, as calls for term limits swept the nation, Suffolk and its towns enacted term limits. Unfortunately, term limits never came to where they were extremely needed—Congress and the New York State Legislature. Members of Congress and the legislature have, with the power of incumbency, a lock on staying in office.

Suffolk legislators aren’t recipients of large amounts of campaign contributions allowing them to barrage voters with advertising. Each of the 18 legislators has a relatively small district and main political activities are going door-to-door and speaking before community groups.

Cooper, in an interview, said he’s always been for term limits. The legislature “in Albany is a poster child for term limits—some of its members have been there 30 and 40 years, and that’s not good,” he remarked. “Incumbents have so many inherent advantages.”

Still, “I’m conflicted on this. I served for 12 years. I love the job. I think my constituents have liked the job I’ve done.”  It isn’t that he has nowhere to go. He heads a 175-employee family business, “the world’s largest manufacturer” of ultraviolet lighting. He was Long Island chair for Barack Obama for President in 2008, and has had opportunities for federal posts.  Cooper, of Lloyd Harbor, the first openly gay elected Suffolk County official, will be heavily involved in the Obama re-election campaign.

But “I’m feeling melancholy,” he said. Speaking before a community group “the other night, it began to hit me: this probably is the last time. I was almost tearing up.”

“I have real mixed emotions. Philosophically, I’m for term limits—but maybe for county legislators they should be 16 years, not 12. Twelve flew by so fast.”

Viloria-Fisher of East Setauket believes term limits reaffirm an American ideal. “You’re a farmer, you run for office, you go back to the farm. You’re a doctor, you go back to your medical practice.” Governmental office should be “really public service, not a career. I don’t think it should be a lifelong job.” Moreover, said Viloria-Fisher, the first Latina on the Suffolk Legislature, “you can leave on a high level—I don’t have to lose an election to leave. It’s nice to go out on top.”

For decades she had been a teacher of English and also Spanish (she was born in the Dominican Republic). The deputy presiding officer of the legislature, she’s considering an array of options including teaching.  “People have been talking to me.”

Also, “I’ve been able to create a succession plan involving a good person.” Running for her seat on the Democratic line in November will be, she noted, Kara Hahn, active in civic and political affairs in the Brookhaven district and communications director of the legislature.

Jay Schneiderman of Montauk, who represents the South Fork and a piece of Brookhaven on the legislature, will have one additional term if re-elected in November. “I think it’s good,” he says about term limits. “It brings in new blood.”

Ed Romaine of Center Moriches, whose district includes Shelter Island, Southold, Riverhead and a portion of Brookhaven, sees complexity. He served two terms as a legislator and then for 16 years was county clerk before being elected again to the legislature in 2005. His years as a legislator have given him “a much broader perspective than my colleagues sometimes, a better understanding of what needs to be done. I know what works and doesn’t work.” This is especially important, he said, in challenging the county government’s bureaucracy. He’ll be running in November and if he wins will have two additional terms left because his stint as clerk broke up his tenure. Said Romaine, “The bottom line: I have to run every two years and if people don’t like me, they can toss me out on my fanny.”

Karl Grossman is a full professor of Journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. For more than 45 years he has pioneered the combination of investigative reporting and environmental journalism in a variety of media. He is the host of the nationally aired television program “Enviro Close-Up”, the narrator and host of award-winning TV documentaries on environmental and energy issues, the author of six books and writer of numerous magazine, newspaper and Internet articles.
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