Ballot measures propose big changes to local electoral system

When three-term City Councilwoman Carolyn Van Horn is sworn in next week as the council’s choice for mayor, two Malibu political traditions will be evident: long-term incumbency on the City Council and the council’s own selection of mayor. But those traditions are threatened with extinction by two ballot measures proposed by Councilman Tom Hasse for the April 2000 election.

One measure would limit council members to two four-year terms, and the other would grant voters the power to choose the city’s mayor.

The City Council must still qualify the measures for the ballot, and the council is scheduled to consider them at its Sept. 13 and Sept. 27 meetings.

The proposed term-limits initiative, which can not lawfully be applied retroactively, would start counting down the clock on those council members elected next April.

While the thrust behind the once-hot term-limits movement was voter resentment toward entrenched office holders, Hasse insisted this week his efforts are not directed at the council’s long-term incumbents — Van Horn, Mayor Walt Keller and Councilwoman Joan House — because their long tenure in the past would not be counted under the term-limits measure. He also said he was following through on a campaign promise to pursue term limits.

Still, he did not know when he made that pledge, nor did he know until about a month ago that new term-limit laws could not be applied retroactively.

Hasse said his measure is “aimed at bringing good public policy to Malibu.” He described the limits on holding elected office as part of the American democratic tradition, and he cited as evidence the limits imposed on the office of the president. Additionally, 18 states, including California, have imposed term limits on state legislators, and scores of cities and counties across the country have municipal term limits.

“We don’t have a hereditary monarchy here,” said Hasse.

According to the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits, 46 cities in California have such limits, including all the major cities, as well as some smaller ones. Nationally, municipal measures have passed with an average of 70 percent of the vote, higher than the average for state legislative limits.

But despite the one-time popularity of term limits, Stanley Moore, professor of political science at Pepperdine University, said most political scientists now regard term limits as an “absolute failure.”

Moore said under term limits, amateurs have ended up replacing experienced politicians who were knowledgeable about a variety of issues, and, he said, the electorate widely voted for term limits out of a belief that anybody could do a politician’s job.

“They were suffering from a tyranny of complexity and they wanted simplicity,” he said. “But we need people who can deal with complex issues, and at the city council level, you’re still dealing with complex issues.”

How the rest of the council will respond to Hasse’s proposed measure is unclear. Keller and House are on vacation, and Van Horn and Councilman Harry Barovsky did not return calls seeking comment. In 1992, Keller and Van Horn supported a council resolution imposing term limits on council members, but that was before general law cities, such as Malibu, were empowered by state law to have term limits.

In proposing the initiative requiring a separate election for mayor, Hasse said he is trying to end the confusion and what he described as acrimony among council members over the mayoral selection process.

In an attempt to give all five current council members a chance to serve as mayor during their four-year terms, the council, after last year’s election, devised a new mayoral term of eight months for each council member. That figure was then extended to nine months and 18 days, starting with the council term that begins in April.

Yet that whole system could be revised once again if new council members are elected in April, because last year’s mayoral selection process is not binding on future City Councils.

Hasse said he is hoping to avoid future repeated changes to the mayoral term with his proposed measure. About one-third of California cities have a directly elected mayor. When he started researching the issue, Hasse said, he expected to find that only large cities had separately elected mayors, but he found that small cities do as well.

“In a representative democracy, why shouldn’t people elect who they want as mayor to that office?” he said.

The measure proposes the first direct election begin in 2002, but Hasse made no recommendation on the length of the mayoral term.

The directly elected mayor would not have additional powers over City Council members, such as the veto power, but because the mayor chairs the council meetings and serves as the city’s representative, mayoral candidates would require a different set of skills, he said.

The direct election system does have a financial downside. If an incumbent council member who was not up for re-election chose to run for mayor and then won, a special election would have to be held to fill the vacant seat.

For the record: An article dated Aug. 19 incorrectly reported the approximate size of the Malibu Bay Company’s land holdings in the Civic Center. The company owns approximately 40 acres there.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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