Term limits will be on the Nov. 6 ballot with a proposition that could retroactively force five longtime Arlington City Council members out within two years.
And Arlington staff is scrambling to put forth a competing term limits proposal that would extend council terms and wouldn’t consider current or past service.
“The reality is that normal average residents who don’t kiss the ring have no chance of winning,” Maxwell told the council at its meeting Tuesday. “This was a bipartisan effort. We took this to the voters over 10 weeks. We sat in the heat. We earned this so let this go to the ballot alone.”
That angered several of the council members, who grilled Maxwell for more than 10 minutes. “What is it that you believe term limits bring to any elected body when we’re already up for reelection every other year?” Councilwoman Sheri Capehart asked.
“That’s how you can term limit people. No one is prevented from signing up to run. I never kissed a ring. You do not have the ability to judge my heart. No one up here is entitled to these seats, we earn it every day. We are continuing to earn it and if we weren’t we wouldn’t be reelected.”
The proposition would amend the city charter to limit the mayor and council members to three two-year terms. The most contentious part would consider current and past council service, possibly limiting terms for several council members over the next two years. The council expressed concern over the proposition’s retroactive nature, saying it could be challenged in court.
Maxwell said he and other volunteers who collected signatures talked mostly about term limits, not mentioning the retroactive language. He acknowledged at the time he wasn’t sure if that part would be enforceable.
City attorney Teris Solis confirmed that based on the wording, the proposition could be retroactive and count previous service.
After more than three hours of heated discussion, the council voted unanimously on first reading to place the proposition on the ballot in response to a citizen-led petition drive. The council had little choice because the petition had more than 11,000 signatures. Of those, nearly 9,000 were registered Arlington voters, which exceeds the 5 percent threshold (8,612) required for the petition to be placed on the ballot.
Mayor Jeff Williams, who could run again in 2019 but would be term-limited in 2021 under that proposition, said the retroactive term limits could be the one of the most devastating things to happen to the city.
He and the rest of the council directed staff to draft alternative term limit proposals that would extend their terms from two years to three years. Like the other proposal, the council would be limited to three terms but it wouldn’t consider current or past service and instead would only look at 2019 and beyond.
“Let us try to move forward with a proposal that isn’t unethical and isn’t illegal,” Williams said. “And does not paralyze the ability for us to continue to do business.”
The council will consider adding the alternate proposal at its Aug. 14 meeting. Williams said the council could add a second proposition to the ballot and let the voters decide which term limit proposal they want or if they want term limits at all.
Supporters of the term limits said many Arlington residents feel like they are being ignored.
“When people get in office too long, I consider them to be professional politicians,” Bill Gaut told the council. “I want to see a change, I want to see new faces. I want to see people who are going to change the direction of the city.”
Samantha Trimble said the council shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment like the U.S. Supreme Court.
“People are tired of being ignored,” Trimble said.
Opponents said term limits, especially ones that wipe out half the council, would jeopardize the stability of the city. “We have term limits every time we go to an election,” said Larry Fowler, an Arlington resident. “Most of the folks signing that petition had no idea about this retroactive part.”
Opponents also cited the loss of institutional knowledge and experience.
Councilwoman Helen Moise was elected to her first term in May and said she’s spent the first few months learning everything about the job.
“I’m not going to get up to speed on this just until maybe three years,” Moises said. “I don’t support term limits. I’ve told everybody who has ever asked me.”
The current proposition that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot affects five council members over the next two years.
Longtime council members Kathryn Wilemon, Michael Glaspie and Lana Wolff would be term-limited in May. And council members Capehart and Robert Shepard would be term-limited in May 2020.
That much turnover of city leadership has Michael Jacobson, CEO of the Greater Arlington Chamber of Commerce, concerned. He said Arlington’s economy is booming with Texas Live! opening this week and several large projects under construction, including Globe Life Field. Stable leadership has been a major factor in the city’s success, he said.
“Arlington has been experiencing unprecedented growth and the business community wants to see that growth continue,” Jacobson said. “The term limits as crafted in the petition put that stability at risk and put our economic growth at risk. That is concerning to us. We’re not sure what that has to do with good government.”
Jacobson originally pitched the idea of an alternate term limit proposal in a letter to the city.
“We just believe that is the more responsible term-limit proposal,” Jacobson said. “Term limits are popular and that’s why we think having a choice of what we believe is one that will maintain our momentum and create stability.”
The issue of term limits has come up in other cities, including Grapevine where Mayor William D. Tate has served for 43 years and just ran unopposed for a new term in May.
In 2013, voters in Grapevine soundly defeated a term limits proposal with 62 percent of the vote. That proposal wouldn’t have been retroactive for existing council members.