Westminster City Council members are approaching another debate over whether they should subject themselves to term limits.
They’ll discuss the idea at their upcoming Aug. 14 meeting at the request of Councilman Sergio Contreras, following months of political divide between council members during public meetings.
Contreras in a phone interview said at the very least, a conversation on the possibility of term limits needs to happen.
“You can’t run from it forever,” he said, adding that residents keep asking him about the idea. “It’s a good time to talk about it, given all the concerns the community has had lately.”
Any policy increasing the turnover rate of elected officials in the city would have pros and cons for voters, experts say.
Term limits “are not extremely common at the city government level” and there would be “no perfect process” for the policy, said Chapman University political science professor and elections expert Mike Moodian in a phone interview.
One positive side of a term limits policy would be an increase in the number of competitive elections, Moodian said, as opposed to cities that let council members hold their seats for a long period of time where “there’s this notion that once you’re an incumbent, it’s really hard to get voted out.”
There currently is no limit on the number of times someone can campaign for a four-year City Council seat term in Westminster. Mayor Tri Ta has been on the Council for nearly 13 years, longer than any of his current colleagues.
With term limits, Moodian said “the idea is it could potentially increase the number of competitive elections that take place because there will be more open seats” involving “new candidates” with “fresh ideas, new blood.”
And an increase in the number of competitive elections could drive an increase in voter engagement in the city, said Mindy Romero, director for the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California.
“The power of the incumbency tends to keep elected officials and voters in place,” Romero said in a phone interview. “If you have term limits, and you open up that position, you possibly open up more people to vote.”
On the other hand, “you could also lose a lot of experience on the Council” with term limits, Moodian said. “You could lose good people who have a lot of experience negotiating with, say, labor unions.”
And some people might see the very idea of term limits as “undemocratic,” according to Moodian and Romero.
“Some people say it should be up to the people whether they want someone to serve for a short period of time or a long period of time,” Moodian said.
“It’s the idea that in limiting council members’ terms, some would argue you’re actually taking the choice to elect them again away from the voters,” Romero said.
For the last six months, Westminster council members have fought each other over City Hall ethics, the power of the majority council faction, and the state of city politics during meetings that have consistently drawn large crowds of residents.
Much of the debate comes from years of corruption allegations by many former city employees against City Hall, and has recently resulted in recall efforts against every council member by two different groups of residents.
The last time Westminster council members considered a term limits policy in January, they deferred it to a subcommittee where Contreras said the issue “got buried.”
“Burying term limits perpetuates the conversations people are having out there right now about perceived corruption,” said Contreras, who’s on his second term as a council member and has held his seat for nearly seven years. He’s also running for 1st District Orange County Supervisor next year.
Ta in a statement said he has “no problem” with term limits, and that he’s publicly stated this at meetings.
Ta was first elected as a council member in 2006. He was elected Mayor in 2012 and is currently on his fourth mayoral term.
The Mayor’s term used to be capped at two years, but voters in last year’s June 5 primary election increased the term from two years to four, which took effect for Ta’s current term. His seat will be up for reelection in 2022.
Councilmembers Kimberly Ho and Charlie Nguyen declined to say where they currently stand on term limits, and said they’re waiting for more information out of the August 14 meeting.
Ho and Nguyen are still on their first terms. Ho was elected in 2016, and her seat is up again in 2020. Nguyen was elected in 2018 and his seat is up in 2022.
Councilman Tai Do said the city needs term limits, though it “would not pass” under Ho, Nguyen and Ta, the Council majority.
Do, who is on his first term and is up for reelection in 2022, said he would “absolutely” approve a term limits policy if it was brought before him.
There are different types of term limits policies the Council could adopt. In Fullerton, council members can serve three four-year terms back-to-back, but have to wait four years before running for another.
One of Westminster’s neighbor cities, Garden Grove, allows council members to serve two consecutive four-year terms, but council members have to wait another two years before running again after that.
Garden Grove Councilman Phat Bui, who says he observes Westminster city politics as both cities’ large Vietnamese communities often intersect and cross over, said in a phone interview that term limits would be “a good thing for the city.”
Blocking new people with “fresh ideas” from city government “could promote some kind of perceived dictatorship” which Bui said many people in Garden Grove and Westminster’s Vietnamese community are wary of.
Moodian said people pushing a term limits policy in Westminster to unseat council members they oppose might also risk losing council members they support.
And certain issues and projects that some council members champion could “die when those council members are termed out,” Moodian said.
Bui said the need to check the duration of elected officials’ time in office is greater than the need to keep the ones who have public support.
“Once in a while you’ll see someone extraordinarily good that you want to retain and want to allow that person to continue to be on the Council,” Bui said.
To “weigh that advantage against the disadvantage of having no term limits,” he said, “would not be worth it.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.