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Orange County supervisors narrowly voted Tuesday to ask voters to extend their term limits while describing it on the ballot simply as a “lifetime ban after three terms,” amid a wave of opposition from residents on both sides of the political aisle. 

Conservative and liberal residents – who waited 7 hours to speak Tuesday when the item was brought up at the end of the supervisor’s agenda – called the measure’s language a “sneaky” and misleading effort by supervisors to extend their own power.

The only public comments supporting the measure were from the three supervisors who voted to put it on the ballot: Lisa Bartlett, Doug Chaffee and Andrew Do.

Supervisors voted 3-to-2 to put the measure to voters during the upcoming special recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, which could take place as soon as September or October.

Supervisors Katrina Foley and Don Wagner dissented.

The supervisors who support the measure said it would create a lifetime ban similar to state lawmakers and many other counties, while Do acknowledged it would extend the current supervisors’ limits by another 12 years.

“Even if this passes, and say I get another 12-year term, I would tell you right now, I will not serve more than 12 years,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, who currently is termed out under the existing limits of two back-to-back four-year terms.

“By setting the 12 years with a lifetime ban, we are mirroring not only what happens at the state level – in the Assembly and Senate – but also we’re mirroring what happens in other large urban counties, and being consistent with that approach,” said Bartlett, who is the first of the current supervisors to be termed out under the current law.

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If approved by voters, the proposal would let Bartlett run for re-election next year and other supervisors to run again in future elections, despite being termed out currently.

Wagner said the measure is misleading by making it sound like it’s tightening up term limits, when it would let supervisors extend their terms by more than a decade longer.

“I would hope the public, when it ultimately votes on this measure … is aware what you are doing is potentially allowing any one of us to serve into 2034,” Wagner told his colleagues Tuesday.

“That would be an honest way of presenting this to the public. Sadly, that is not the measure that we have here, and for that reason I’m going to have to oppose it,” he said.

Foley, who joined Wagner in opposing putting the measure on the ballot, didn’t speak besides casting her no vote.

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Supervisors started their regular public meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and didn’t start debating the ballot measure item until after 4:45 p.m. at the very end of their agenda.

All 30 public commenters on the measure opposed it, despite disagreeing with each other on other key issues like vaccinations, police funding and coronavirus restrictions.

“It’s dishonest. You’re just mislabeling the whole thing. And you’re trying to deceive the public by false labeling,” said one resident.

“It’s very deceptive,” said another.

“It’s worded as if you’re limiting the terms. But in fact you’re giving yourselves 12 extra years, on top of the terms you’ve already served. What a disgusting excuse for governmental responsibility,” one person said.

Under current law, supervisors can hold office for two back-to-back terms – totaling 8 years – and then must leave.

After a “cooling off” period, they can run again later for up to eight more years at a time.

The new ballot proposal would delete those limits and replace them with a lifetime limit of 12 years, which can be served consecutively.

And it would reset the clock for the current supervisors, according to Wagner and Do, who weren’t challenged on that point.

“The courts have said if you change term limits, it resets everybody’s clock,” Wagner said. “The problem I have with the [ballot language] is it is nowhere clear to the public that the clock is reset. And that is something that must be made clear to the public.”

Chaffee said he supports letting the voters decide whether to put a lifetime limit on supervisors’ terms.

“This simply says you can never serve more than three [terms] – whether they’re consecutive, or spaced out,” he said. “We’re not deciding the issue here. We’re simply putting it on the ballot for people to decide.”

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The new proposal was first introduced publicly late last week on page 733 of the supervisors’ supplemental agenda, with no cost estimate and no mention of which supervisor asked for it to be put forward.

Opposition to the measure – particularly its ballot wording – has drawn bipartisan opposition from a former leader of the state Republican Party as well as the county Democratic Party.

“The measure looks to take advantage of the voters’ support of term limits, by making it sound like it’s this great lifetime ban – when the reality is it’s a sneaky maneuver by sneaky politicians to get out from under the current term limits,” said Jon Fleischman, an OC-based conservative activist who formerly served as executive director of the California Republican Party.

“It does the opposite of what it purports to do. It literally guts term limits, while making the voter think that it strengthens term limits,” added Fleischman, who publishes the Flash Report and said he’s not supporting anyone for Bartlett’s seat.

Democratic Party officials say it’s a deceptive attempt by politicians to extend their power.

“This is a dirty power grab, plain and simple,” said Rachel Potucek, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Orange County.

She continued:

“Supervisors are playing backdoor games to rewrite rules and extend their own term limits. They are doing it in a way that’s deceptive, with intentionally misleading language, burying this important item in the supplemental agenda at the tail end of an hours-long Board meeting. The choice to push this through in a low-turnout special election is even more undemocratic.” 

The Orange County Republican Party didn’t have a statement about the ballot measure, according to the party’s executive director, Randall Avila.

Democratic Party officials also criticized a website supporting the ballot measure as a false effort to make it look like Democrats support the measure.

“This fake Democratic website would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad and desperate. It shows how badly Republicans need this ballot measure to keep their majority,” Potucek said. “This is their Hail Mary pass for 2022, they know they won’t win without it.”

The website has no contact information and is registered privately, which obscures the identity of  whoever is behind it.

Fleischman, the former state Republican Party leader, said the measure very well may succeed given the misleading language on the ballot.

“That’s a pretty good scheme, right?” he said. “Because who’s going to raise the kind of money it would take to talk to voters in a special election in September or October of this year, to let them know it doesn’t do what it says it does.” 

He added:

“So it’s a cynical play. It may be a successful play.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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