Norberto Santana, Jr.

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Orange County supervisors today are expected to consider placing a ballot initiative on the November ballot establishing a lifetime, three-term limit for a county supervisor.

Editors Note: Orange County Supervisors removed their term limits item from Tuesday’s public agenda after this column was published.

Currently, supervisors work under a two-term limit in office, which allows them eight years in office.

Twelve years is the sweet spot for a local elected official, argue Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Doug Chafee, who want voters to consider creating a lifetime, three-term limit similar to terms now used by state legislators.

“When you are serving for that length of time, you can accomplish so much more,” Bartlett said in an interview about the proposal expected to be debated at today’s weekly public meeting.

Bartlett, who this year is serving as president of the California State Association of Counties, argues that longer terms would help OC supervisors not only better engage locally on issues and projects that take years but also encourage leadership on key state and regional panels.

Encouraging that kind of longterm leadership, Bartlett argues, is key for Orange County taxpayers getting equitable treatment from Sacramento and seeing long term projects through.

Bartlett said her office was “approached by members of the community” to sponsor the discussion with the hopes of keeping key leadership in place during a sensitive time with lots of initiatives around homelessness, Covid-19 as well as those addressing the impacts of the ongoing recession.

The idea already has drawn opposition from conservative voices on the OC GOP Central Committee.

Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Flash Report, a popular read in Republican circles statewide, came out against the proposal and specifically Bartlett.

“I happen to believe that term limits are a good thing,” Fleischman wrote last week, publicly calling on supporters to contact supervisors and ask them to vote against the idea.

“I think that having career politicians is not a good thing, and that we have a system in America that protects incumbents,” he wrote. “But even if you do not like term limits there is plenty to dislike about what Bartlett is doing here.  Because she is trying to mislead voters.  Note that the ballot title above does not say: “Change term limits from two terms to three terms and eliminate the ability of a termed-out politician to ever run again. And reset the term limits for incumbents.”

Fleischman called the idea “a cheap maneuver by a politician so desperate to hold on to her office that she is willing to violate a somber responsibility to be truthful and upfront with the voters.”

Bartlett took issue with that kind of characterization saying the proposal won’t apply to her term in office and instead, “Ends the revolving door, where you end up with 20 or 30 year politicians” because people can currently run for office more than twice.

For example, DA Todd Spitzer served as a county supervisor in the early 2000s before leaving for a stint in the state legislature and then came back in 2012 to serve two more terms as a supervisor.

According to Bartlett and Chafee’s report to supervisors on the issue, it states that “in Orange County’s history, 18 members have served over 12 years. The longest serving member had a total term of 29 years.”

“The proposed ordinance will strengthen term limits by restricting individuals to serving a lifetime maximum of three full terms on the Board of Supervisors, thereby closing the aforementioned “revolving door” loophole to the County’s term limits law.,” read the report.

Bartlett is also adamant that such an initiative would not “reset the term limits clock for incumbent members of the board,” pointing to a county counsel opinion that the initiative would not apply to incumbents.

Yet Fleischman questions that argument, saying there’s enough legal ambiguity on the issue that any politician could easily challenge the ban and win in court.

Bartlett and Chafee have secured the support of the county’s largest union, the Orange County Employees Association, which appears supportive of the idea of lifetime term limits and issued a press release about the issue on Monday.

“This ordinance would strengthen the current ban on serving more than two consecutive terms on the Board of Supervisors and create a reasonable lifetime limit,” said OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield. “I think this ordering provides a desirable balance between the need for some term limits with the need for competent and experienced elected officials, Barfield added.

Now when Fleischman ran his column last Friday, he said he had counted three votes against the measure: Supervisors Don Wagner, Michelle Steel and Andrew Do and advised readers to reach out to supervisors and let their opposition be known.

Yet in many ways, the deeper question facing county supervisors and taxpayers from a governance perspective is whether they are needed at all.

After the 1994 county bankruptcy, supervisors and community members sponsored a host of studies about implementing such changes to county government.

Reforms like making supervisors part-time, or electing a County CEO or expanding the membership of the board to seven or nine members were considered.

Considered…and tabled.

Bartlett and Chafee’s initiative and ensuing board discussion today could offer our current crop of county supervisors a chance to dust off some of those old plans, ask some hard questions of themselves, and maybe even offer voters several options to improve county governance.

Judging from the slow, secretive and inefficient county response to the Coronavirus pandemic so far, it seems that the county government’s fleet of public sector executives could really use some help, in the way of effective oversight and engagement.

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