Charter Revision: Let’s Discuss Ending Term Limits For Council Members

Image credit: New York City Council.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council, in creating competing charter revision commissions, avoided endorsing the central reason why the City could benefit from charter revision: ending term limits for council members. Term limits arguably may have had a healthy impact on the mayoralty, but not so with the council. Two four-year terms for council members resulted in instability of council membership and leadership and a lack of institutional discipline that has produced a council weaker than it should be.

Voters in 1993 imposed term limits on a government that had been explicitly designed to create two power bases – a strong mayor and an equally strong council. Term limits upset that balance. Prior to the 1989 charter the power of the mayor was balanced by a board of estimate where the mayor had only two votes out of eleven; the comptroller and council president each held two votes while the borough presidents each had one. The 1989 charter commission eliminated the board of estimate, but explicitly sought to maintain the balance of power by making the new council the equal of the old board of estimate on such matters as budget, land use, zoning, franchises and oversight of agencies.

Term limits undermined the capacity of the council to play the role intended by the 1989 charter. There have been three speakers in the last five years. Each of them has been strong individually, but rapid change in leadership weakens the institution. Three years from now in the 2021 elections 37 of the 51 council members will be term-limited, including the current speaker. Most of the members would like to remain in government so many of them are already thinking about the next job. Without term limits, many members would instead be building expertise and authority to support their role as the counterweight to the mayor.

Charter commissions uniquely can help voters understand obscure charter issues like term limits by explaining how term limits affect the council. The commissions should place term limits for council members at the top of the agenda with the goal of building the public’s understanding of the impact of term limits on the council. Even the small change of adding a third term would greatly strengthen the council. A charter commission is the place to have that discussion.


By: Ross Sandler


One thought on “Charter Revision: Let’s Discuss Ending Term Limits For Council Members

  1. No, term limits are not an “obscure issue” on which voters need to be tutored by incumbents eager to get rid of them. We know. We know that incumbents don’t want to be term-limited and will never stop trying to get rid of them. We know that they know and that we know the advantages which incumbents enjoy over challengers merely in virtue of being incumbents. We know that abuse of power is more likely the longer an incumbent is entrenched in power. We know that electoral competition increases dramatically when term-limited seats become “open” or when an incumbent finally dies or retires from offices that are not term-limited. Thanks for the offer. But we know.

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