A common saying among groups of three or more liberals in San Diego County is: The Board of Supervisors is a living advertisement for term limits.
Well, we don't know if everyone says that, but we at CityBeat do. Often.
That's the message union leaders will try to hammer home in the months leading up to the June 2010 primary election, when voters will be asked to impose term limits on the five county supervisors.
As a matter of principle, we're opposed to term limits—for the simple reason that they reduce voter choice. All things being equal, we believe voters should be able to choose whomever they want to represent them, even if one of the choices is a four-term incumbent. After all, wouldn't it have been a shame for liberals if someone like Ted Kennedy had to retire or run for a Massachusetts school board after two terms in the U.S. Senate?
But all things are never equal, and the folks pushing for term limits will tell you that, as a practical matter, such a policy is a necessary last resort when it comes to holding supervisors' feet to the fire.
At first glance, this campaign looks like union interests simply wanting to break up a tight Republican grip on the county board. The five current members, all Republicans and generally not union-friendly, have been in place as a group since the mid 1990s. So what? They win their elections fair-and-square, don't they? They continue to warm their own seats because voters continue to elect them.
It's not so simple, their critics counter: The supes have drawn their own favorable district borders, and campaign-finance restrictions make it near impossible for challengers to raise the kind of money needed to combat the incumbents' built-in advantages, such as name recognition and the kind of patronage—er, good will—they can generate by doling out millions of dollars from their personally controlled, taxpayer-funded slush funds.
They add that county supervisors are viewed under a relatively low-powered microscope. Although San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jeff McDonald has stepped up the paper's coverage of county government lately, supervisors are subjected to much less press scrutiny than, say, members of city councils. Moreover, relatively few voters have reason to even think about their supervisor. Frankly, unless you're poor or live outside the borders of an incorporated city—or your city contracts with the county for police or fire protection—you really don't have much reason to pay attention to what your supervisor is up to. As a result, many voters, unenlightened about their county representative's job performance, will just go ahead and mark the box next to the name they've heard.
The government ladder is a term-limits patchwork. The San Diego School Board doesn't have them, but the San Diego City Council does. The state Assembly and state Senate have them; the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate do not. You know the president of the United States is limited to two four-year terms. It's likely that jury will never come back with a verdict on how successful term limits are. Lots of people like the fact that politicians can't get too comfortable under term limits, and they have increased gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the ranks of officeholders. But it would be hard to argue that term limits have done much good at the state level, where, some argue, quick turnover has shifted power to career staffers and lobbyists.
The role of the county Board of Supervisors is, again, to serve as a city council of sorts for unincorporated communities and to, essentially, act as a kind of weigh station for state and federal money on its way to help poor people at the local level.
This board—Greg Cox, Dianne Jacob, Pam Slater-Price, Ron Roberts and Bill Horn—has been praised in some quarters for deft handling of the county budget but criticized for mishandling the county pension system. Environmentalists hate them for worshipping at the altar of the 10-lane freeway, and they get widely panned for not giving a damn about the people who rely on social services. Even the conservative Union-Tribune has blasted the supes' arrogant use of their slush funds. Yet they continue to get elected.
We'll say it again: In a perfect world, we don't like term limits. We'd rather fix the glitches in the system that benefit incumbents. But this world is far from perfect, and if there were ever a good place for term limits, it's the County Administration Building on Pacific Highway.
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