In Philadelphia, being elected to City Council can be close to a lifetime appointment. Even though all 17 City Council seats are up for grabs every four years, in the past 35 years only 13 incumbents who served a full four-year term lost an election. Five current members of City Council have been serving since before the new voters in this current election cycle were born.
Now, Councilman Allan Domb wants that to change.
Domb, who is currently seeking his second term as an at-large member, introduced a term limit bill on Thursday. The legislation would limit the number of terms on City Council to three consecutive four-year terms. Because term limits would require a change to the charter, Domb’s proposal will need the support of 12 Council members before it can appear on the ballot in the May primary election. Similar legislation was introduced in 2011 by then-Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. and failed — after all, there is little incentive for members to vote against their own job security. To circumvent this problem, Domb’s bill exempts all sitting members , although he says he would not seek more than three terms.
Without grandfathering in current members of Council, the bill would have retired Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Curtis Jones Jr., who are seeking a fourth term; Darrell L. Clarke, who is seeking a sixth term; Jannie Blackwell, who is seeking an eighth term; and Brian O’Neill, who is seeking an 11th term.
Domb’s strongest argument in favor of term limits is that only two of the 10 largest cities in America don’t have them — Philadelphia and Chicago. Domb says that term limits would increase the competitiveness in City Council races and would push good members of Council to represent Philadelphia in state and national positions.
At least five Council members currently oppose the bill if six members oppose, the bill fails. Opponents say that term limits would lead to a loss of institutional knowledge by forcing experienced council members to retire. In addition, opponents argue, the decision to retire elected officials should be in the hands of the people.
That’s an ironic argument because what Council is really voting on is not imposing term limits but on whether the voters of Philadelphia would have the chance to vote on that matter in May. Putting a term limit question on the ballot is exactly the way to give the people the decision to retire elected officials.
Another benefit of term limits is that it can increase the urgency of members to focus on getting results. Currently, because members are likely to have another term if they want it, legislation often stalls and eventually dies. If a three-term clock starts ticking on the first day on Council, perhaps more members would push legislation across the finish line.