Some veteran Pierce County politicians would get some extra time in office if the County Council and voters approve term-limit changes that will get a public hearing Tuesday.
The council will consider a proposed amendment to the county charter that would allow the county executive and council members to serve up to three consecutive four-year terms in office, up from the current limit of two terms.
As currently drafted, the three-term limit would not apply to any time elected officials have served before 2010. That would give existing officeholders a clean slate and would allow some council members to serve up to 19 years in office.
Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, who drafted the proposal, said it wasn’t his intent to allow council members to serve that long. He said he will introduce an amendment at Tuesday’s council meeting that would count time already served toward the three-term limit.
The proposal already has drawn criticism from those who say it’s a way for incumbents to extend their hold on power.
"To the victors go the spoils," Councilman Calvin Goings, D-Puyallup, said at a council Rules Committee meeting Monday. "I think this is a power play, pure and simple."
Muri originally pitched his proposed charter amendment as a way to address long lines and other problems experienced during the Nov. 4 general election.
Elections officials say the combination of a historic turnout and the county’s new ranked choice voting system led to slow going at the polls and delays in determining the winners of some county offices.
As a partial solution, Muri proposed moving county elections to odd-numbered years, when most municipal elections already occur. He said the lower turnout for those elections would allow elections officials to better handle the new voting system.
Another possible benefit: Muri said county offices like assessor-treasurer would get more attention if they’re not on the same ballot as president, governor and other state and federal offices. That would allow voters to better vet candidates for county offices.
"The electorate can only absorb so much," Muri said.
Muri’s proposed charter amendment would move county elections to odd-numbered years. But it also would extend term limits for county executive and council.
Currently, people elected to those offices can serve only two four-year terms. That’s why County Executive John Ladenburg was not eligible to seek re-election this year.
Last year voters approved charter amendments extending term limits for county assessor-treasurer, auditor and sheriff. People elected to those offices now can serve up to three consecutive four-year terms. Last year’s amendments also made those offices nonpartisan.
Muri proposed those measures as well. At the time, he described the term-limit extensions for assessor-treasurer, auditor and sheriff as a compromise between the existing two-term limit and no term limit at all.
Now he says his latest proposal would make the term limits for executive and council consistent with those for other county offices.
Muri admits he’s no fan of term limits. He said they deprive voters of experienced elected officials.
"You really start getting good at what you’re doing representing the county in your second term," he said.
Other council members echo those comments. Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, said the two-term limit puts Pierce County is at a disadvantage on regional transportation boards. He said officials from other counties with no limits or longer limits come to dominate those boards because they serve longer.
"It’s always the King County person that tends to be making regional policy," Bunney said at Monday’s Rules Committee meeting.
Some wonder if there’s another motivation for extending term limits. At Monday’s meting, Tacoma resident and former council candidate Ken Paulson called the proposal self-serving.
"I’m wondering if this is not just a way to keep current people in power long enough to run for another powerful office in Pierce County," Paulson said.
As drafted, Muri’s amendment would allow some current office holders to start with a clean slate when it comes to term limits. The amendment specifies that service by a council member or executive prior to Jan. 1, 2010, won’t count toward the three consecutive term limit.
That would allow three current council members – Bunney, Chairman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor, and Councilwoman Barbara Gelman, D-Tacoma – to serve up to 19 years on the council. Other incumbents also would get extra time in office.
At Monday’s meeting, Gelman proposed an amendment that, among other things, would have counted time served before 2010 against the three-term limit. The amendment failed 1-2, with Bunney and Lee voting against it and Goings voting for it.
Lee said confusion about Muri’s intent led to the vote.
Muri said it wasn’t his intention to give current officeholders a clean slate. He said he will introduce an amendment at Tuesday’s council meeting that would limit current officeholders to three total terms.
Muri said he also wants to split his proposal into two separate charter amendments. One would move elections for auditor, assessor-treasurer and sheriff to odd years. The other would move elections for executive and council to odd years and extend the term limits for those offices.
Five votes on the seven-member council are required to send the charter amendments to voters, who would decide their fate next November.