The Florida Supreme Court last week heard arguments to decide whether county commissioners in 10 Florida counties may be term-limited. If the justices rule against term limits, which they ought to, it might helpfully reopen the debate about whether they’re a good idea.
The justices are considering cases from the Second and Fourth District Courts of Appeal. The question is whether it is constitutional for charter counties to limit terms for commissioners. The metropolitan areas of Tampa, Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are among the affected counties.
In 2002, a Supreme Court ruling struck down term limits for county officers other than commissioners. Now, opponents of term limits want the high court to decide whether the Florida Constitution forbids term limits as an “unlawful disqualification” for commissioners.
The principle is profound. Simply put, term limits deny voters a choice and therefore limit democracy.
Several reasons are offered for term limits, some worth considering. It’s too easy for elected officials to build political dynasties, particularly at local levels. And in the case of an especially powerful position, such as president of the United States, they are needed. But in general there should be wide latitude on term limits.
In the Florida Legislature, they have been an unmitigated disaster. The citizen-initiated law that went into effect in 2000 and limited legislators to eight years created a constant turnover that requires new leadership every two years and produces an incessant fight for leadership positions five, six and seven years down the road.
This madness has resulted in loss of institutional memory and legislative decision-making based more on public-relations jockeying and payback than on public interest. The slogan “eight is enough” is dead wrong. It’s not nearly enough for sound politics.
Term limits have been seen as a project of Republicans, especially of the libertarian sort. Perhaps it’s because of their suspicion of institutional authority. But this is a very strange position for a group that supposedly values freedom of choice, which term limits deny.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus, a Republican who would have to leave office if the Supreme Court upholds term limits, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “I’m having people stop me in Costco and saying, ‘I really don't like this term-limits thing.’”
It’s worth noting that Ronald Reagan believed the 22nd Amendment, which limits the president to two terms, should be repealed on the grounds that voters ought to be free to decide.
I don’t go that far. Sometimes people need to be saved from their own choices. Anyone who doubts that people will voluntarily give too much power to one person need only look at Russian voters’ fascination with Vladimir Putin.
There has to be some balance between freedom and restraint. The current system is too restrictive. Lengthen the maximum terms of legislators and commissioners to, say, 20 years or so, which would allow for a more productive career, free from the cannibalistic frenzy we see now in the Legislature.
The Supreme Court needs to throw out term limits for county commissioners as a first step toward a reconsideration of the whole issue.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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