Don’t tinker with term limits 

It looks cynical, a blatant scheme to entrench fellow officeholders in their powerful positions. Maybe it actually is cynical, but we’ll give Bevan Dufty the benefit of some pretty obvious doubts. The conscientious supervisor is toying with the idea of writing a charter amendment that would extend term limits from two consecutive four-year terms to three consecutive four-year terms.

Dufty figures supervisors need more time to learn the inner workings of government, an argument we’d guess will fall flat on The City’s voters who enacted the restrictions in 1990. His case may have some plausibility, given that some of that overwhelming support for the 17-year-old dispensation conceivably has eroded. No doubt part of the original appeal was to see what would happen, and voters do enjoy dropping politicians into Petri dishes.

Board President Aaron Peskin observes that what did happen (to switch metaphors) was the emergence of a "hamster wheel," in which elected officials from Sacramento to the local level spend their time searching for the next office to seek once they’re termed out. It should be noted that Peskin has said publicly he’d rather nurture his San Francisco roots than gaze longingly on the state Capitol.

Dufty himself affirms he’ll not seek re-election if voters approve his charter amendment. This pledge, of course, preserves a patina of disinteredness, even recalling the reformist spirit that, not so long ago, brought the progressives into their majority status on the board. The City’s voters, it seemed, were ready to turn the page on former Mayor Willie Brown’s domineering ways. Term limits helped.

What has happened since brings to mind the Tammany adage that if you love your freedom, barring other choices, you should vote for a grafter over a reformer. Grafters are predictable, only skimming calculable coinage from your pocketbook. Reformers want to rule your life. The progressives — by exacting payments from the business community in order to sustain their high-minded schemes — have managed to combine the characteristics of both. So any measure that prolongs their tenure probably isn’t advisable.

You do wonder what Dufty is confessing when he exhorts us to grant his fellow officeholders more time to learn the inner workings of City Hall. For starters, exactly how inner does he think is appropriate for those workings? Why not call for beaming more sunshine their way instead? And what, indeed, is wrong with citizen-politicians, freshly inaugurated, crossing off promised agenda items for the ready edification of voters?

In business, some degree of naïveté is considered virtuous, which is why we applaud new Supervisor Ed Jew’s efforts to guard the financial health of The City. No inner working instructed him that it couldn’t be guarded. The way to encourage such salutary naïveté, clearly, is to keep term limits tight.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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