Term limits don't stop incumbents

Assemblymen, school board members pursue reelection despite initiative

Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The fact that voter approval of term-limit propositions this fall could prevent them from taking office even if they win has not deterred assembly and school board incumbents from filing for reelection.

As of Monday less than a week from the 2007 municipal election's filing deadline two sitting members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and two from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education are taking their chances.

They are banking that propositions successfully placed on the ballot by initiatives petitions this summer sponsored by members of the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers (ACT) will either fail at the polls this fall or that their effects would be overturned in court.

Assemblymen Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, and Gary Superman, of Nikiski, who each have served two or more successive terms, have signed up to seek reelection. Sprague was elected in 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004. Superman will have served two complete successive terms by fall having been elected in 2001 and 2004. Superman also served a three-year term after being elected in 1989.

Also filing for reelection in October are school board members Lorraine "Sammy" Crawford, of Kenai, and Edith-Helen "Sunni" Hilts, of Seldovia. Though she has served only nine years, this will be Crawford's fifth consecutive run for office.

Hilts, meanwhile, won a one-year term in 2003 and a three-year term in 2004.

The two propositions would limit office holders to no more than two successive terms, but the word "term" is defined broadly to include not only a three-year period, but also terms of much shorter duration that might result after resignations, or from changes in the legislative body's composition, its membership structure, or from districting or apportionment.

Under that definition, a person conceivably could serve as little as two years yet still be prevented from assuming a third term; for example, as when a person appointed to fill out a one-year term is then elected to a one-year term.

Incumbents having already served more than two successive terms who are reelected this fall theoretically would be prevented from taking office by provisions of the ACT propositions.

"It will be a key campaign issue," Sprague said Monday. "I believe voters in my district think I'm doing a good job, and I'm going to give them the opportunity to elect me again if they desire."

Sprague said ACT's initiatives put candidates in terrible positions.

"To say I'm not pleased with (it) would be an understatement," he said.

Superman said he was confident provisions of the initiatives would not stand up in court, especially the fact that they would retroactively apply to terms already served. In the limited Web research he has done, he said, he has found nowhere that such retroactive clauses have succeeded.

"That, in and of itself, is problematic," he said.

School board member Sammy Crawford called the term-limit propositions "a simple solution" driven by perceived corruption at the state and national level. Term limits are not appropriate to the local level, she said.

"I feel like we have term limits already. People can vote anyone out" at regularly held elections, she said. "We don't need a rule saying people can only run twice. I'm very frustrated. It is difficult to get good people to run at the local level."

Crawford said her experience has led her to becoming secretary-treasurer of the Alaska Organization of School Boards, and later this fall presuming she is still on the borough school board she could be nominated as president-elect of that organization. If so, she would become its president in 2009.

"That would give the peninsula an advantage in influencing state policy regarding schools, education and especially funding," she said.

Hilts said she filed to run not realizing she might be prevented from assuming her seat if reelected. Since learning that ACT propositions could have the effect, she said she has talked to people who say the issues aren't really settled. Thus, she is staying in the race, she said.

"I will be disappointed if I cannot be seated," she said, adding that she'll be even more disappointed if her district votes for her only to see their votes negated by a boroughwide vote in favor of term limits.

Hilts said she believes the general sentiment in Seldovia probably leans toward term limits at this point until, she said, the impact of term limits with regard to experience and influence is explained.

"People don't realize what they are doing," she said. "How do you say that institutional memory is not valid anymore?"

She also said she disagreed with a sentiment expressed by ACT spokespersons that lengthy stays in office result in an elected official "becoming one" with the administration.

Hilts said she realizes the "throw-the-bums-out" sentiment may prevail. Crawford promised to speak out against the idea.

Superman, too, said he believes term limits will pass, but he won't be actively campaigning against them. However, he said he would love to debate those issues with an ACT member should one file to run against him.

As of Monday, no one from ACT had filed to seek office. Superman said, however, he fully expects to face an ACT opponent.

ACT member Mike McBride, of Nikiski, said Monday that he knows of no ACT member planning to file.

"Contrary to what some of our detractors have said, this was never about getting ACT members elected," he said. "We have kind of set the stage for others."

McBride did say he was "kind of holding my breath" waiting for other residents to sign up to run against incumbents.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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