The call for term limits, or how long an elected representative can remain in office, seems to most frequently be brought up by those demanding “change” and by those who are seeking to be elected. If a candidate senses an adequate level of disapproval of the current representative(s), they will sometimes bring up the topic of term limits in an effort to stir up emotions and get elected themselves. It is in part an appeal to voters who want to “throw the bums out of here!” But on further consideration, are term limits necessary or even the way to go? Here are 4 things to consider;
1 – We have an election every 4 years – Once elected, our mayor and councillors are not given the job for as long as they want it. They have to be re-elected every 4 years. Voters are given the choice as to whether these officials should get to keep their jobs or not. While common, re-election is certainly not guaranteed.
2- Term limits would take away the power of choice from the voters – By not allowing a particular candidate to run for re-election, democracy is actually diminished. On a basic level, it would be a shame if a popular and effective representative, who did an excellent job for their constituents, wasn’t allowed to run for re-election because they reached a term limit. To those candidates advocating for term limits a good question may be, “But don’t you think you will do a good job and the voters will want you to continue?” Additionally, term limits may be unconstitutional. While it specifically refers to provincial and federal elections and not municipal, Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians the right to vote and the right to be elected. Term limit legislation may not pass a constitutional test.
3 – Councillor decisions have long term impacts – Many of the decisions that council must make have long term and lasting effects for the city. There may be an inherent risk involved with having those who know their position is coming to an end making important decisions. They will not be around to “face the music” or the consequences of their actions. The possibility is certainly there for them to push their personal or special interest agenda knowing they will not have to be accountable for it in the future. In the private sector, when an employee with control over finances or access to delicate information is being laid off or let go, it is common practice to have the employee's access revoked and be escorted from the premises immediately following notification of the end of their employment.
4 – Pending recall legislation – The Alberta government has introduced pending recall legislation that would apply to municipal officials. Should an elected representative “really step in it” during their term, the legislation would provide a procedure by which they could be removed. This legislation has the potential to have more impact than term limits in that it could provide the ability to remove an official mid-term rather than waiting for an election at the end of their term.
While the notion of term limits may have some initial appeal to frustrated voters, we should be careful what we wish for. As Eric Adams pointed out, “electors have tended to exhibit remarkable wisdom in knowing when a candidate's time has passed.” I have confidence in the voters of Calgary and believe we should trust our current method of determining the time a councillor should spend in office: an election.