Glen Cove’s policymakers heard a proposal from Carolyn Wilson of the Charter Review Committee to study whether to make certain fundamental changes to the city charter, including amendments regarding councilmembers’ term lengths, term limits and whether the terms should be staggered.
Wilson and the rest of the 12-member committee — founded in 2015 under Mayor Reginald Spinello — poured through every line of the 53-page charter to see where it had to be updated. “We didn’t propose any drastic changes,” Wilson said, a redundancy here, or an inadvertently created contradiction there.
But after the work of cleaning up the charter was done, the committee began to ask whether there were any significant changes that could be made to help the city’s government run more smoothly.
The three proposals — limiting the number, lengthening the duration, and staggering the turnover of terms on the city council — would need to be approved by referendums wouldn’t come up for a vote until November.
Wilson said that well before it gets to that stage, the committee wants to gauge public interest in each proposal. The committee set up an online survey and will provide opportunities for public feedback both online and through hard-copy paper survey distributed through the city’s official newsletter.
In the interest of understanding the benefits and limitations of the proposals, the Herald Gazette talked to Stan Klein, a political science professor from LIU Post, about each one.
Klein said that staggering the terms of council members would be “consistent with how most municipalities in Nassau and Suffolk do things.” Staggered terms, he said, would lower the learning curve for new elected officials who have to learn on the job about the inner workings of city government.
Wilson agrees. She recalled just one time in her decades worth of government experience when the mayor and all of the council members were new to the work. “They would have nobody to learn from,” she said. “If they bring in all new department heads, nobody knows what was happening before, nobody knows what’s going on. There’s a continuity you need.”
Klein agreed. “It’s always good to have institutional memory,” he said.
Currently, Glen Cove’s elected leaders serve 2-year terms. The mayor’s term is uniquely brief. Of 14 similar municipalities in New York that the committee used for comparison, the only other with a 2-year mayoral term is Port Jervis. As for council members, half of the comparable municipalities had 2-year terms, and the other half had 4-year terms.
Wilson said that the short terms for both the mayor and the council make it hard to govern effectively. For people who had never served on the council before, she said, “It takes them a good six to eight months to figure it out, and then before you know it they’re running again. Now we’re looking at extending the terms from two years to maybe three or four years.”
Again, Klein agreed. “It becomes too onerous to run,” with such short terms, he said. “It’s easier to discuss and describe upcoming policy when you have 3 years to do it instead of just two.”
He also talked about the importance of politicians learning on the job. “If you go to a doctor or dentist,” he said, “you want someone with experience. For politicians, people say, ‘He’s never been in government before, let’s see what he can do.’”
Klein doesn’t believe that politicians need to be inexperienced to have fresh ideas. They should have a working understanding of what working in government requires, he said, and how a specific government works. The problem is that the pool of qualified people is too small, and he said that term limits could be a way to solve that problem.
Term limits, Klein said, would result in “more people being more qualified,” but only under certain circumstances.
Term limits, Klein said, are a good way to balance experience with new ideas. “You have someone in office for [a long time,] they get experience, but they don’t get new ideas.”
If term limits only apply to the council and the mayor, he said, it wouldn’t fix much. “I think they should apply to everyone,” he said. “What’s good for one part of government is probably good for the other parts of government.”
The city charter, in fact, already contains a term limit provision for commissions, boards and agencies. At a city council meeting, David Nieri, a member of the charter commission, explained that since the charter came into effect in 1980, “It is likely that every mayor and every city council has violated the charter,” he said, by failing to replace members who had served out their term limits.
In a statement Nieri read aloud, he said that board membership “is voluntary and without compensation, and requires significant personal time,” and thus it was difficult to find community members willing to serve on boards.
A better solution, he said, would be to remove term limits from the charter, since they have essentially always been ignored anyway, and give the mayor and the council the discretion to remove ineffective board members, or “cut out the deadwood,” as he said. He also called upon members of the public to raise their concerns about specific board members to the mayor and the council, to give them the feedback they need to make such determinations.
Klein noted that term limits would give more people the opportunity or rather, force more people, to hold office at lower levels. A high turnover of planning board or zoning board would create a larger pool of people who understand how to run a city, and give voters more options when selecting council and mayoral candidates.