Guest opinion: Should we impose limits on City Council terms? | January 31, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - January 31, 2018

Guest opinion: Should we impose limits on City Council terms?

by Brielle Johnck

As Menlo Park considers whether to change from a general law city to a charter city and switch from at-large City Council elections to district elections, there's another issue that deserves to be included: Term limits.

Menlo Park is a town where the residential turnover is experiencing a robust period. Every seven years, 50 percent of the town's population is made up of new residents. Neighborhoods are changing. New businesses creating thousands of new jobs bring us new neighbors.

We are a town that is in the midst of critical changes that need rigorous and thorough analysis. Term limits for council members work well in Palo Alto and would be a welcome rule here in Menlo Park. Our city commissions have term limits.

Our current council, which has led the town into a new economic and cultural transformation, is made up of members who have served a total of 36 years, with one council member having been first elected in 2006.

Ten years seems a lifetime if we consider Facebook's arrival in 2010. With the council's approval of our specific plan in 2012 and the updating of our general plan in 2016, there has been over 2 million square feet of office development built, and another 4 million is on the way. The growing daytime population of office workers in Menlo Park and Palo Alto has clogged our streets with commuters eager to reach highways and bridges. Once quiet neighborhoods are experiencing afternoon parades lasting three hours Monday through Friday.

So, is it time for a change in thinking on our City Council? Do we need term limits or is the opportunity to vote a council member out of office enough?

An argument for allowing council members to run for more than two terms is that knowledge of civic history keeps a city manager in check. In Menlo Park, however, we have experienced a council and city manager sharing the same eagerness for office development, which brings thousands of office workers and commute traffic.

Business vitality and municipal prosperity come with a price and both are a template for a city headed for an imbalanced jobs center. Office workers looking for a sandwich and a cocktail at a downtown rooftop restaurant is not the same as neighborhood identity and community spirit. Facebook, with its target of 20,000 employees, exists in a self-contained campus where the needs of employees — whether it be food, laundry or bicycle repair — are met within the company's walls. Most of these employees are invisible to us unless we see them through the windows of their cars and corporate buses.

The question is: Can the same City Council that transformed our suburban Menlo Park to a jobs-center Menlo Park now address the impacts of that growth? Housing displacements, soaring rents, congested roadways, and the threat to our crowded schools are real problems today. We are now on the road to an urbanized Menlo Park, increasing our population from 34,000 to 50,000. There's no turning back.

Half of Menlo Park residents arrived in the last 10 years. These new residents are making sacrifices to live in Menlo Park by paying high rents or hefty property taxes. Fair representation on our council should include new voices. A council member serving more than eight years can be more the problem and less the solution.

The job of a council member is not to become a political fixture. We thank you for your service; now a clean-up crew is what the city needs.

Brielle Johnck served on the Menlo Park Environmental Commission and has lived in Menlo Park since 1971.


12 people like this
Posted by time for change
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 4, 2018 at 3:35 pm

Ms. Johnck highlights an important and timely topic. The current council has caused the current horrific traffic situation. Blame them when it gets even worse when the projects they have approved are built.
New thinking and new energy is needed to address the problems our area is experiencing from too little housing and too many offices. The ballot box is one way to get fresh leadership.

4 people like this
Posted by effectiveness
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 5, 2018 at 2:01 am

Ms. Johnck writes about, "...congested roadways, and the threat to our crowded schools..."

The traffic problem is from all other communities passing through Menlo Park, and our local schools are experiencing a decline in enrollment. Creating districts may work against Menlo Park having officials that are effective in regards to regional traffic and transit issues.

The back stabbing and bickering of years past created an environment where incumbents were often rejected by the voters. The fact that the current council can disagree while still supporting and even endorsing each other speaks volumes to their professionalism and effectiveness.

2 people like this
Posted by little advantage
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 5, 2018 at 10:29 am

Going back to 1990, there have only been FOUR elections where all incumbents were re-elected. In THREE of those elections, no incumbents were running. Unlike most other peninsula cities, Menlo Park has been a place where incumbents have little advantage.

• 2016 — Incumbents RE-ELECTED
• 2014 — Incumbents RE-ELECTED
• 2012 — Incumbent knocked out
• 2010 — Incumbent knocked out
• 2008 — Incumbents RE-ELECTED
• 2006 — Incumbents knocked out
• 2004 — No incumbents running
• 2002 — No incumbents running
• 2000 — Incumbents RE-ELECTED
• 1998 — Incumbents knocked out
• 1996 — Incumbent knocked out
• 1994 — No incumbents running
• 1992 — Incumbent knocked out
• 1990 — Incumbent knocked out

8 people like this
Posted by conscience
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 5, 2018 at 12:32 pm

I'm an advocate for limiting Council terms to two four year terms, as it is with the Menlo Park Planning Commission. As with the Planning Commission, after serving on the Commission for two terms (eight years), a Commissioner can take a term off and then reapply for appointment. WE need to welcome new voices and faces to represent and lead our community. I'm also opposed to a directly elected Mayor; I believe a directly elected Mayor will limit the voice of the City Council.

2 people like this
Posted by little advantage
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 5, 2018 at 3:59 pm

@conscience writes, "We need to welcome new voices and faces to represent and lead our community."

The members of the city council were first elected by knocking out an incumbent in 2006, 2010 or 2012, so the notion that incumbents cannot be effectively challenged is absurd. Now with district elections, you'll get one voice to represent your neighborhood. With an elected mayor, you'll get one more voice to represent your interests city wide. Several maps put four of the current council members in the same district, so there is simply no way NOT to have new voices and faces.

3 people like this
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 5, 2018 at 8:35 pm

Term limits on the MP Council? Yes, of course.

5 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 6, 2018 at 2:20 am

Thank you Brielle Johnck for your editorial. I believe that all Commissioners are limited to two consecutive terms and then they must be off for at least one year before re-applying. (The limits aren't just for the Planning Commission.) Commission Chairs and Vice Chairs must also change every year, according to policy governing commissions. The required yearly change brings forth new ideas and leadership approaches. It could also result in a weakened commission where the staff controls the agenda, discussions and outcomes. Good governance in our city doesn't just rest with Council. We also need a strengthened role for the residents in MP's governance which is supposed to flow from Council through the City Manager and then departments and staff. Having more residents involved (in a meaningful way) would increase transparency and accountability, and lead to better decisions and outcomes. Eight years of service is long enough to make a difference. Term limits would keep the council fresh, get more residents involved and limit special interests. Let's put term limits to the voters in a ballot referendum.

Like this comment
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 6, 2018 at 2:53 am

Forgot to include that I agree with "effectiveness" that our current council conducts themselves professionally during the Council meetings. (They also spend much time outside of Council meetings reading documents, attending meetings, responding to residents and so forth.) I too remember when Council members weren't always civil with each other and the public, so I appreciate how our current Council conducts themselves. My advocating for term limits is not meant as a criticism of current council members for I very much appreciate their personal sacrifice and service out of their desire to improve our quality of life in Menlo Park.

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