By: Kendall Quirk
Arlington, Texas is probably best known as the home of the Dallas Cowboys or Texas Rangers, but it may soon be home to some of the strictest city council term limits in the country. On November 6, 2018, Arlington voters will see Proposition E on the ballot, a citizen-written proposition restricting the mayor and council members to three two-year council terms to be applied retroactively and banning current members from running again. The proposition, written solely by Arlington resident Zack Maxwell, was brought to the council by petition with more than 11,000 signatures, with some people stating they were misled when approached to sign.
The United States Constitution only outlines term limits for the office of President to two four-year terms. In 1995, the Arkansas Constitution was challenged for limiting United States senators and congressmen to two terms and three terms, respectively, thus possibly violating the federal constitution. The United States Supreme Court held in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995) that states cannot impose term limits on federal offices, as it violates Amendment 10 of the U.S. Constitution. This case prevented states from imposing term limits on federal offices and established that elected officials in Congress would not be subject to term limits, but it did not forbid states from limiting statewide or municipal terms. Vernon’s Texas Codes and Statutes Annotated states, “A municipality or county may submit in an election of its qualified voters the question of whether it should exercise the powers conferred by this subchapter,” giving Arlington and other cities in the state the power to propose and vote on such term limit issues. Proposition E, however, faces critics in the city.
The “Vote No for Proposition E” campaign on social media finds more than the strict limits of the proposition an issue; the group also claims it is unconstitutional based on the retroactivity aspect of the proposition. The City Attorney’s office declined to share any information when I spoke with a representative from the office on October 1st regarding this claim, as they could soon face litigation if the proposition passes. The Texas Constitution allows cities with a populations of more than 5,000 to amend the city charter “by a majority vote of the qualified voters of said city, at an election held for that purpose” and cannot be amended “oftener than every two years.” Arlington’s population is well over 5,000—verging on 500,000—and last amended its city charter in 2015. The Texas Constitution also states that members of a council “may provide by majority vote of the qualified voters voting at an election called for that purpose, for a longer term of office than two (2) years for its officers but not exceed four (4) years” not mentioning the number of terms in office.
Municipal term limits have often been a hot button issue in local elections. In 2010, after almost two decades of battling, New York City voted for the third time on the issue. The New York City term limit for municipal offices was first imposed in 1993 as a two-term limit, was changed to a three-term limit for the mayor in 2008, and was reinstated as a two-term limit in 2010 by referendum. Nine of the ten largest cities in the United State have a form of term limits for municipal offices and 51% of U.S. cities with populations over 250,000 have mayoral limits. The population in Arlington is well over 250,000 and growing, has had drastic economic growth in the past ten years, and currently has $5 billion of development underway. A new Texas Ranger Stadium and Loews Hotel, complete with a next-door live music venue will be completed by 2020. The National League of Cities notes that larger cities are more likely to impose term limits, and with the economic growth and increasing population in Arlington, this may reflect new attitudes of voters.
Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams believes severe problems could come from Proposition E, saying, “Arlington has been without term limits and we’ve had mayors do great things beyond the six-year term limits proposed in Proposition E.” If the proposition passes, five of the city’s eight members of the city council will be forced out of their seats in the next year and a half, many of whom have served for more than a decade. Mayor Williams not only sees this as a problem for the stability of the council, but also expressed concern about the inevitably high turnover rates; members’ limited time on the council would not give them time to become established and make connections with their constituents and citizens in the city. Arlington has never had term limits and Mayor Williams expressed his surprise when this issue was brought forward just months ago, saying simply, “term limits imply that voters haven’t done a good job electing candidates.”
The city council announced an alternative in response to Maxwell’s Proposition E, a less restrictive term limits proposition, but was issued a temporary restraining order based on the city council not voting on the item the minimum number of times and therefore will not be facing Proposition E on the ballot. The city’s ideal alternative would be less restrictive on the limits: city council members would be allowed three terms, would be grandfathered in, and could run again after sitting out of office for a term. The mayor and city council hoped this would be a happy medium between the strict term limits and none at all, and despite not having it on the ballot in November, hope they can introduce a similar proposition soon. The Mayor hopes that, if Proposition E does not pass, the city can “attack [term limits] reasonably with citizen input and a city-led commission to get term limits on the ballot. [Proposition E] is a way to stop our momentum and take advantage of our citizens who want term limits.”