Opponents: Turmoil no excuse for 3rd term

October 17, 2008 4:32:30 PM PDT
The nation's financial turmoil is not a reason to panic and change term-limits law so that Mayor Michael Bloomberg can stay in office, opponents said during a final City Council hearing on the mayor's plan.

The billionaire businessman dropped a political bombshell two weeks ago when he reversed his long-held opposition to changing the law and said he would seek to modify the charter so that he could run for a third term. Existing law limits officeholders to eight years and he is set to leave office at the end of 2009.

A council committee heard testimony from witnesses including members of the public and would-be mayoral candidates on Friday in the second hearing on Bloomberg's proposal. The full 51-member council could vote on the legislation as soon as next Thursday.

Bloomberg says he decided to seek the law change because he believes his financial expertise and managerial experience is crucial to keep the city on stable fiscal ground in the long term.

Many witnesses testifying Friday disagreed, and some said he was merely a bored billionaire unhappy that his presidential aspirations did not come true. They likened his efforts to the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani explored the idea of staying in office to help mend a terrified and grieving city. Others asked whether the nationwide financial crisis was a reason to keep President Bush in office.

"In eight years, if you can't do the job, then you don't need to be in there," testified Ernest Collington, a retired postal worker.

Also addressing the council committee were City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. and Rep. Anthony Weiner, two Democrats who were expecting a wide-open mayoral race next year. Their political futures are now in question due to the threat of Bloomberg running next year as an independent, with a limitless supply of money to spend on a campaign.

"A lot has been made about the mayor being the only person to move us forward," Thompson said. "This is New York City, the city with the best and the brightest - there are clearly other people who could run the city of New York."

"No one person is indispensable," he added.

Testifying for Bloomberg's side, Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons described the economic uncertainty as "frightening" and maintained that city business leaders were more comfortable having Bloomberg at the helm of government during such an emergency.

"In times such as these, there is simply no substitute for leadership that has been tested," he said.

As Friday's session began, opponents of Bloomberg's plan jumped up and briefly disrupted the proceedings, yelling "billionaires have ruined this economy." The small group, carrying a large banner reading "Bloomberg to democracy: drop dead," was quickly escorted out of the room.

Throughout the day there were few new arguments to be made, with many of the witnesses simply repeating what had already been hashed out in a 10-hour hearing a day earlier. The two sides are chiefly divided over the issue of whether the voters should have a say in changing term-limits law, or whether it is appropriate for the City Council to be considering such a major move legislatively.

Voters twice approved term-limits in the 1990s.

For his part, Weiner framed the debate as one about voters rights, urging the council to reject the proposal on grounds that it denies the public true participation.

"You can choose the right way, you can listen to our citizens, you can rise out of the shadows," he said.

As far as public input, opponents of Bloomberg's campaign appeared to have a slight edge over supporters. Out of the 150-some witnesses, about 55 percent said they were against the term-limits change and 45 percent endorsed it.

Along with Bloomberg's proposal, the governmental operations committee is also considering two bills intended to thwart the mayor's effort.

One would require voter approval for any change to the term-limits law. The other would establish a commission to evaluate the issue and perhaps put it on the ballot.

Creating a special election was a sticking point for both sides over the two days of hearings. The mayor has said it is too late to go through the motions to hold a special election, and he contends it would cost taxpayers $15 million.

A number of witnesses and council members questioned why Bloomberg did not announce his intentions months ago, in time to put the issue to the voters this November.