Philadelphia City Councilman Allan Domb believes his job should come with an expiration date.

A resolution Domb introduced Thursday would impose one. It would change the City Charter to limit a Council member to three consecutive four-year terms, or 12 years. If it passes, the measure would be placed on the May 19 primary ballot for voters to decide.

“You’d have new people coming in,” said Domb, who is running for a second term. “Fresh ideas, new energy. It could possibly increase diversity in candidates, create a more engaging democratic process ...and might really hold officials accountable.”

Of the 10 district incumbents running for reelection this year, five would be ineligible if those term limits had existed when they were first elected. Two members, Brian O’Neill and Jannie Blackwell, have held their seats for more than 25 years. Council President Darrell L. Clarke has had his for 19 years.

Council Members Who Would Be Affected by Term Limits

Councilman Allan Domb is proposing limiting Council members to serving three consecutive four-year terms. Seven current Council members would be ineligible to seek reelection if such term limits were in effect when they were first elected. Domb's proposal would take effect in 2020 and exempt current Council members.

Council member

District

Terms served

10

Brian O’Neill

10th

7

Jannie Blackwell

3rd

5

Darrell L. Clarke

5th

5

Blondell Reynolds Brown*

At large

3

Curtis Jones Jr.

4th

3

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez

7th

3

William Greenlee*

At large

2

Mark Squilla

1st

2

Kenyatta Johnson

2nd

2

Bobby Henon

6th

2

Cindy Bass

8th

2

David Oh

At large

1

Cherelle Parker

9th

1

Allan Domb

At large

1

Derek S. Green

At large

1

Helen Gym

At large

1

Al Taubenberger

At large

* Not seeking reelection

Council member

District

Terms served

10

Brian O’Neill

10th

7

Jannie Blackwell

3rd

5

Darrell L. Clarke

5th

5

Blondell Reynolds Brown*

At large

3

Curtis Jones Jr.

4th

3

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez

7th

3

William Greenlee*

At large

2

Mark Squilla

1st

2

Kenyatta Johnson

2nd

2

Bobby Henon

6th

2

Cindy Bass

8th

2

David Oh

At large

1

Cherelle Parker

9th

1

Allan Domb

At large

1

Derek S. Green

At large

1

Helen Gym

At large

1

Al Taubenberger

At large

* Not seeking reelection

SOURCE: City Council
Staff Graphic
Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell walk together after a groundbreaking at the Sharswood public housing development in North Philadelphia. Clarke has been on Council since 1999, Blackwell since 1992. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
File Photograph
Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell walk together after a groundbreaking at the Sharswood public housing development in North Philadelphia. Clarke has been on Council since 1999, Blackwell since 1992. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The measure could be dead on arrival. At least five members, David Oh, Blackwell, Curtis Jones Jr., O’Neill, and Bill Greenlee said Thursday they would oppose the term limits. Resolutions to change the charter require a two-thirds vote of the 17-member Council.

In 2011, a similar term-limit bill introduced by then-Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. failed. Unlike that proposal, Domb’s resolution would exempt current Council members from limits. But it also follows the 2015 election, when several new, and younger, members joined the body. In this election season, all the incumbent district Council members have opponents, and more than 30 people are running for at-large seats.

“Philadelphia, overnight almost, certainly over the last two elections, has become a model of younger, newer turnover of Council members," said O’Neill. “So anybody that is crying out for term limits in Philly now, they have to have a secret agenda.”

When O’Neill was elected to represent the 10th District in 1979, he was 29, a gallon of gasoline cost 86 cents, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was at the top of the music charts. That would prove to be a fitting anthem for the legislator who, at age 69, is the longest-serving person on City Council. He’s won 10 elections over 40 years.

Experience, O’Neill argued, matters: “Each time you run, but actually each day, each week, each month, you’re learning. I always think, these voters had confidence in me when they had no reason to. Now that I’m really, I think, really good, because I know a lot and can handle myself, I owe them.”

New York, Houston, and Los Angeles all have council term limits. In the absence of experienced Council members, O’Neill said, lobbyists and staffers would really run city government.

Councilman Brian O'Neill is the longest-serving member of Philadelphia City Council. He was elected in 1979 and opposes term limits. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Councilman Brian O'Neill is the longest-serving member of Philadelphia City Council. He was elected in 1979 and opposes term limits. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

“You’re basically saying you don’t trust voters, you don’t trust the process," he said.

In Philadelphia over the last 35 years, only 13 incumbent Council members who served a full term later lost their seats to challengers.

A study by Philly 3.0, a political action committee that has pushed term limits, found that only eight of the last 80 district Council races over four election cycles were competitive — meaning a challenger came within 10 percentage points. Overall, incumbents won with an average 88 percent of the vote. In 2015, eight of 10 district Council members ran unopposed.

Philadelphia is also among the only cities with mayoral term limits (two terms) but none for City Council.

“City Council races are significantly less competitive than they need to be," said Ali Perelman, executive director of Philly 3.0.

That is especially true of the district seats, she said, "where they have the most power ... and voters have the least ability to hold those folks accountable.”

Incumbents have the benefit of years of constituent work to garner favor with their district’s voters. They can also start fund-raising at least two years before a challenger can, and incumbency comes with the built-in advantages of party support, like access to voter information databases, or sidewalk teams to help collect nominating signatures.

Fund-raising against a district Council person can also be incredibly difficult, because of the power Council members wield over business and development.

“People are scared of running against district Council people," Perelman said. "The nature of those races is completely different than the way the at-large fields operate.”

Karla Cruel, a lawyer challenging Jones in the 4th District, said she’s asked for money from people who say they shouldn’t even be talking to her.

“People who might be interested in your campaign are afraid to support you because they don’t think you’ll win,” Cruel said. "Just today, I was trying to get signatures and somebody said to me, ‘Oh, I grew up with Curtis,' and wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.”

Lauren Vidas, who is running against Kenyatta Johnson in the 2nd District Democratic primary, said the city party denied her access to the voter activation network, a valuable database of voter information, because Johnson has historically had the party endorsement.

“You have a party who really does kind of frown on any challengers to incumbents,” she said.

O’Neill pointed to the flood of candidates running this year as evidence that voters have options.

“I’ve always said, ‘You have to do the work, and if you don’t do the work, the people can fire you,’ " he said. "When they say it’s time for me to go, I’ll say, ‘OK. Thank you.’ But why limit their options?”