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Term Limits

No Tenure for The Competent? Or Process Through the Mediocrities?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, August 01, 2001.

Boulder County is trying to impose term limits on its elected officials. There are problems with the concept in reality, however good on paper and theory, so let's set Boulder County aside for the moment and discuss the recent incarnations of this estimable effort.

Blowhard Republicans have, ever since Reagan, professed that America does not need a professional class of politicians, and that real men, and the occasional woman, ought to retire from Washington after, say, two terms in office. This sounds good, but it begs the question of whether America ought to be turned over to enthusiastic amateurs and idiots of the first water. The question is begged because there is nothing to prevent the continuance of a professional and financed class of lobbyists who are as sharp if not sharper than the politicians they cajole, threaten, and bribe today as ever. To use an illustrative example of moment to the remnants of the Moral Majority, you do not eradicate nude mud wrestling by entering your own contestant, dressing her in four layers of canvas, stays, and gingham with a Puritan hat and boots and telling her to fight the good fight for ten minutes, after which she'll be replaced by another Vespers virgin also untrained in combat of any sort. Oh, and stay clean for the image.

Nobody with an IQ above a cephalopod really believed otherwise, including the grotesque hypocrites who campaigned on that very issue. In fact, it seems the majority of Republicans who campaigned for the House of Representatives in 1994 and won partially on the promise that they would only stay for four years actually ran for a third term. Many lost, but there are still ambulatory elements around Washington to disabuse the true believer. All Republicans, by the by.

But Washington is not Lamar, say, or even Boulder the Damned. Local politicians with no higher aspirations are generally driven by one of two things: corruption or an actual desire to do good for their community as they see it. Elected officialdom generally does not pay enough to offset the financial loss suffered by not working in the private sector. As a result, the talent pool can often be very shallow indeed.

This is especially true with offices like comptroller, judge, sheriff, and coroner. One would like to think that a person having detailed financial knowledge of your local government's bank accounts had financial experience, could add, understood amortization and debt service and the details of budgets, but many small towns, counties, and even cities in this country have no such requirements; the post is an elected one, and because nobody else wants it, corrupt idiots bankrupt their communities for decades before being found out, usually by a newly arrived professional in retirement. You'd like to think a Barney Fife couldn't be appointed or elected anywhere, but the nation is full of them. The difference is that there is no longer an Andy to hold the bullet back, but a corrupt treasurer to provide Barney with a Swat Team and armored vehicles to enforce bribes from rural pot farmers. You want to think that judges are objective and answer to nobody, but many - especially in the South and West - are elected and must campaign frequently enough to require the solace of secure financial backing. Enough said.

And coroner. Traditionally, this obscure office was a given as a prize to some obscure campaign worker, because even when there was a murder or a disaster requiring the services of a coroner, all he had to do was phone for help from the big boys. But now that science has progressed and much if not all can be learned from the corpse of a victim, murder or accident, the post by common sense demanded a pathologist or at least a medical doctor. Slowly in the twentieth century communities made the connection and the requirement. But face it, a good pathologist may not long for such a position. If a community has one, it might be in their interest not to arbitrarily force him or her out because of term limits.

But if you exempt coroner, why not the other offices of potential talent loss? Good question, and rather than grant all these exemptions or even enter the discussion, the question ought to be: what offices should be elected and which appointed by those very elected officials? If you elect, say, a Town Council, why not let them accept applications for and appoint people to needed positions? If you don't like their choices, vote them out, a valid election concern. Have appointed posts come up for consideration in staggered years so that a new Council cannot appoint a complete slate. If, say, a City Attorney has served an uncomfortably long time, like J. Edgar Hoover, inquire of Council candidates why with a plethora of qualified lawyers such a thing should be. And why should a perfectly qualified coroner be replaced for no reason and with no qualified replacement?

Should Sheriff be an elected office, or one held by an individual for ten years and then replaced by a known set of standards: in house or from outside, vast cop experience or vast bureaucratic experience? Judgeships ought neither be elected nor forever. It is a debilitating job for nowhere near enough money. And like, say, becoming a trial attorney or a tax attorney, students ought to be able to study for becoming a judge. But they ought to serve no more than ten years in one judicial position before they have to leave: up or out. It is apparent how many judges so labor in anonymity that they make fools of themselves when a case demands cameras and remarks to the press. Look at the Microsoft, Simpson, McVeigh, or the Ramsey case here. Cowboy hats. Glowing articles in Vogue. Advisors to made for television movies. Blustering incomprehension and incompetence. Given the profitable existence of H and R Block, is the public qualified to elect financial officials? Shouldn't the councilmen and women choose who they can work with and take the fall when money goes away?

I realize that potentially the solution is to up salaries for all these offices, and the talent pool increases, but that requires taxes, and that isn't going to happen easily. I also realize that even with ten year terms for these key positions, if there is no term limit for the elected officials who appoint them, a danger could occur in a generation or less. But there is no exempting the voting public from its responsibility to pay attention, and that may be, regardless of methods chosen, the most difficult thing of all.