Term limits go to voters

Props 2, 3 would affect assembly, school board

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2007

Two controversial ballot measures seeking to set strict term limits on Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education seats could have profound effects on the futures of those bodies if approved by voters in the Oct. 2 municipal election.

Not only would Propositions 2 and 3 limit their members to just two consecutive terms, but would also count previous terms served retroactively, even if those terms were for less than the normal three years.

Three assembly and two school board incumbents currently seeking re-election in their districts could, even if they win, be prevented from assuming office should voters approve the term-limit proposals boroughwide. Thus, voters beyond a district's borders could overturn a decision made by voters within that district.

The two propositions, which would approve Ordinances 2007-01 (assembly) and 2007-02 (school board), treat seats on the two elected bodies similarly. They would establish a two-term limit and specifically define a term to include not only a typical three-year elected period, but also terms of any lesser length, as when members are elected or appointed to serve the unexpired remainder of terms in vacated seats, or any term served by a person elected to a period of less than three years because of a change in assembly composition, membership structure, districting or appointment.

Although the chances of such a scenario or slim, language in the ordinance could limit a member to less than two years in office, if, for instance, that person were appointed to fill out a remaining portion of a vacated term, and then was elected to a one-year term made necessary by redistricting or other change in the structure of the assembly.

The provisions of the ordinances would apply beginning with any current assembly member whose second consecutive term of office ends in 2007, 2008 or 2009 and would prohibit them from serving another consecutive term.

Those prevented from serving would be required to wait a period of three years before they could serve again. That language would allow a former assembly or school board member to file to run for office in August of the third year of the waiting period.

The ballot questions voters will see say a "Yes" vote would limit terms for assembly or school board members to two consecutive terms, which would include any portion of a term served less than three years, and would prohibit those members from serving in office until a period of three years had passed since the end of the member's second term.

"No" votes would defeat the ordinances.

If approved by voters, the term-limit restrictions could affect immediately the public service futures of Assemblyman Gary Superman, of Nikiski, Assemblyman Pete Sprague, of Soldotna and Assemblyman Paul Fischer, as well as school board candidates Sunni Hilts, of Seldovia, and Sammy Crawford, of Kenai. All have or will have served two or more consecutive terms as defined by the ordinances by the time the new assembly and school board are seated in late October.

Supporters of the term-limit propositions say spending too long in office can lead members to lose touch with constituents and become less likely to challenge initiatives of the borough administration. They also say new candidates may be inhibited from running against popular incumbents, and that term limits ensure fresh ideas coming to the assembly and school board.

Opponents argue term limits already exist in the form of regular elections, that the power of incumbency is not so great as to discourage challenging candidates, and that it could force from office qualified and effective lawmakers. This year's election could have the added complication of forcing from office incumbents that district voters may have re-elected.

The language in both initiatives leading to the propositions was vetted by the borough clerk's office and determined meet what is described as the "light" legal review sufficient to allow the measures access to the ballot. That review, however, would not prevent court challenges to the outcome of the election where a more intensive legal review would be likely.

Such a court case would likely end up before the Alaska Supreme Court, which ultimately could decide the constitutionality of term limits in Alaska.

Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs has said the limitations that term limits would impose on the electorate's fundamental voting rights, as well as the length of time an individual would have to wait before running for office again could be causes for lawsuits.

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

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