The Argument

Should Newton adopt term limits for its mayor and City Council?


Thomas Mountain

Newton resident, Republican City Committee chairman

Thomas Mountain
Thomas MountainHandout

One of the basic realities of elected officials is that, once elected, they tend to stay in that position, well, forever. Unless they are moved up the political ladder, chances are the only way to boot a politician out of office is through his or her own voluntary retirement or involuntary death, whichever comes first.

Such is the power of incumbency. And it affects every level of government.

Case in point, the Garden City of Newton. A newcomer to Newton politics has about as much chance of getting elected to the City Council as winning a spot on the Red Sox. There are exceptions, though, such as a councilor from an established family who spends three times more to get elected than what the job pays in a year. But typically, vacancies occur only in circumstances such as when a pair of 80-something councilors died in office.

The way it works in Newton politics is simple: move your way up the Democratic City Committee ladder by handing out an incumbent’s leaflets, holding their reelection signs, and frequenting the most tedious civic meetings imaginable. Then eventually you might get the nod when an opening on the City Council pops up sometime over the next decade. And once you’re elected to the political insiders club, it’s sort of like being a judge. It’s permanent.


Now comes an elected Newton Charter Commission, and suddenly it’s calling for term limits. Six two-year terms for the City Council and three four-year terms for mayor.

How the commission came up with the idea of limiting how long someone can stay in office is indeed perplexing to many in the Garden City. But it may be that its members see the wisdom of opening up the process to new candidates who otherwise would have to wait for old pols to retire and make room. And if they succeed, it will set a precedent for other Bay State municipalities.


Then maybe Newton’s example could inspire a state commission to limit the terms of state legislators. And maybe, just maybe, that would inspire a national commission to do the same for Congress.


Ted Hess-Mahan

Newton councilor at large, Ward 3

Ted Hess-Mahan
Ted Hess-MahanHandout

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” -- Groucho Marx

Newton’s Charter Commission has taken a straw vote to include 12-year term limits on both the mayor and city councilors in the city charter to be placed on the ballot next year. The majority’s rationale is to promote turnover, and that 12 years is enough to effect change. (Full disclosure: A majority of commissioners apparently believe that, in my seventh consecutive two-year term as alderman/councilor, I have surpassed my expiration date.)

Like the League of Women Voters, I oppose term limits as anti-democratic because they deny voters choice, exclude experienced and knowledgeable public officials from serving, reduce accountability of elected officials in their final terms, and encourage “quick fix” solutions to long-term problems. Tellingly, the only member of the commission who ever served as alderman voted against term limits. And Newton voters hardly demonstrated a desire for term limits by repeatedly reelecting mayor Teddy Mann, who served for 22 years until his death, and alderman Wendell Bachmann, who served for 55 years -- 24 as board president. The City Council chamber is named after him. And, significantly, incumbency does not guarantee reelection, as we saw in the most recent municipal election.


Citizens should have the right to elect persons they believe will best represent them. Wisdom, knowledge, and experience are far more valuable than “new blood,” particularly given the increasing complexity of issues confronting city government. The loss of institutional knowledge, in particular, would handicap decision making on issues like fiscal stability, long-term planning, and promoting housing diversity. Even though term-limited city officials would be permitted to run after a two-year hiatus, issues with citywide impact -- like large mixed-used developments, financing, and building new schools -- can arise at any time. Regardless of which side voters fall on these important issues, they ought to be able to elect a mayor and city councilors who represent their views to lead and decide those questions.

For these reasons, I cannot support a charter that includes term limits for mayor and city councilors and would vote against it.

Last week’s argument: Should Acton rescind its recent approval of CPA funds for church projects?

Yes: 56 percent (10 votes)

No: 44 percent (8 votes)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.