Are term limits good for the suburbs?

Updated 1/14/2013 4:12 AM

While Arlington Heights residents may get to vote in April on whether village officials should be limited to two terms, officials in other Northwest suburbs that already have limits are debating whether it has been a good thing.

Some say term limits are the only way to get rid of office holders who have been around for a generation, while others complain that it pushes good people out of office.

It might be up to residents to decide in Arlington Heights later this year after resident Bill Gnech collected more than 2,700 signatures on his petition asking for a binding resolution that would limit both village trustees and presidents to two, 4-year terms over a lifetime. Barring any challenges to his petition, the question will be on the ballot in the April 9 election.

Today, the village's electoral board will hear an objection, filed Thursday, that questions the wording of the petition.

The term limits question comes as one of the longest-serving mayors in the suburbs, Arlene Mulder, is set to retire. Mulder was elected as an Arlington Heights trustee in 1991 and has been village president since 1993.

Of the three candidates vying for her job, both Mark Hellner and Ron Drake signed the term limits petition, while Thomas Hayes, who was elected to the village board with Mulder in 1991, said he was against the idea.

"We already do have term limits -- every time people go in the voting booth, they decide," Hayes said. "The voters decide how long the term of elected officials should be."

Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg, echoed that idea.

"You do have term limits because every two or four years there's an election," Green said. "People underestimate how complicated running government is. It's a place where you need to have people with some experience."

Both Des Plaines and Rolling Meadows have had term limits since the 1990s in measures approved by voters through referendum.

Some in those cities, however, say that rationale is not good enough.

"People forget how incredibly powerful it is to be an incumbent in an election," said Rolling Meadows Mayor Tom Rooney. "Sure, we have an election every few years in this country, but we very rarely have fair fights because when you're an incumbent almost every single advantage is yours. We're not saying you have to get out of public service, just that you need to give up those advantages once in a while."

In Rolling Meadows aldermen can serve three consecutive 4-year terms, while mayors are allowed two 4-year terms. But Rooney left the position of alderman after eight years.

"I not only believe in term limits; I actually lived them," he said, adding that he thought two terms should be enough for anyone at the local level.

"When I got to the end of my second term, of course I didn't want to leave," he said. "But we're all supposed to be grown up enough that we do things we don't necessarily want to do because it's healthy for society."

Gnech has said a major reason he wants term limits in Arlington Heights is to bring in new people with new ideas, as many of the trustees have been in office for more than a decade. But opponents, including Mulder, said that could lead to a big loss of institutional knowledge.

Rooney said it has been a positive to have former mayors and aldermen in the community who he can reach out to for advice or help on different issues.

"For every good person you're losing there are two or three stinkers being pushed out the door who wouldn't have left otherwise," Rooney said. "There are plenty of good office holders, but there aren't any that are indispensable."

The petition in Arlington Heights still faces many questions, if it survives today's hearing. Gnech's petition didn't specify how or when the term limits would be implemented or what would happen to already elected officials.

Another big question in the Arlington Heights petition is the word "lifetime" -- limiting someone to only two terms of service ever in each position. That would make it more restrictive than term limits in other municipalities and could make the measure less likely to be approved, officials said.

In both Rolling Meadows and Des Plaines, one can run for another term of office after taking some time off. For example, former Des Plaines Mayor Tony Arredia is running for another term in 2013 after he had to leave in 2009 because he'd hit the term limit.

Rooney, Green and former Des Plaines mayoral candidate Mike Lake agreed that the "lifetime" idea is too harsh of a restriction.

"If they want to come back, who are we to say no?" asked Lake, who helped gather signatures to get term limits on the Des Plaines ballot many years ago. Lake is now helping Arredia run his campaign.

Measures for term limits in Des Plaines, and Naperville -- where city council members and mayors are limited to three consecutive terms -- were approved by more than 70 percent of voters.

Still, Green said, although the idea is often to get new people into the few seats of power in local government, having high rates of turnover is not necessarily a good thing.

"There is very little evidence that bringing in someone new would turn around problems in that government," he said. "People think it's a quick fix, but they might not see that the problems are going to remain."

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