Whether on the playground or in politics, one way to gain an advantage over your opponent is to change the rules of the game.
Former Duluth police chief Eli Miletich insists that’s not his aim at today’s Duluth Charter Commission meeting (see adjacent box). He says his push to limit the mayor and City Council members to two terms has nothing to do with his long-running feud with Mayor Don Ness over city retirees’ health care costs. He simply favors term limits as a means to enliven politics and better engage voters, he says.
“I’m not getting into personalities,” Miletich, who retired in 1992, insisted to an editorial writer Monday — right after he said, “We’ve gotten too used to people being elected and getting so comfortable with the chair they sit in, they almost attract an aura of royalty about them.”
Well, that convinces us of Miletich’s sincerity. He couldn’t possibly be taking about Ness. At age 39 and after five and a half years as mayor, Ness is about as unroyal as a Minnesota politician gets. He has tackled both fiscal disorder and a major flood with unassuming accountability, approachability and good judgment. He has won widespread admiration around the state.
But Minnesotans who still suspect Miletich of a vendetta and deem this to be an isolated episode of parochial politics should look again. Tonight’s term-limits debate could be the Minnesota revival of a recurring bad idea. And the quarrel between Ness and Miletich over benefits for retired public employees is undoubtedly being watched by similarly situated officials and retired employees around the state.
The idea of limiting elected officials’ tenure is a chestnut among would-be American political reformers, who tend to make unsubstantiated claims about its virtues while glossing over its defects. Term limits rob elective bodies of the assets that come with experience and repeated affirmation by the voters. They shift power away from senior elected officials and toward unelected staffers and special-interest groups. They enlarge the lame-duck mentality in representative bodies, making them less accountable to voters. They limit voters’ choices by rendering longtime elected officials ineligible to serve.
Term limits were sufficiently in vogue in the 1990s for 21 states to impose them on legislators’ service. None has done so since 2000. Since then, either legislatures or the courts in six of those states have lifted the limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. We suspect the others have experienced buyers’ remorse.
Ness has not said whether he intends to seek a third term in 2015. But if he’s denied that option on Miletich’s motion, it will be seen as a comeuppance for a politician who had the courage to stand up to politically powerful city pensioners and rein in their health care benefits. That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, given other jurisdictions’ similar struggles with employee retirement costs.
While still a City Council member, Ness spearheaded an effort to shrink the unfunded liability in the city’s pension fund, which had reached an unsustainable $386 million. The redesign he engineered pegs retiree health care benefits to those of current employees, rather than the benefits that were in place when they retired. That was key to a package of changes that Ness says shrank the unfunded liability to a manageable $192 million today.
The changes increased out-of-pocket costs for retirees by $1,200 to $1,800 per year, Miletich said. That’s enough to sting. But taxpayers and current city employees were already sacrificing for the sake of city solvency, Ness says, and asking something of retirees seemed appropriate. In 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed. It would seem that the voters did, too: Ness ran unopposed for re-election in 2011, the first Duluth mayor to do so in more than a century.
Ness’s 2011 re-election aside, Duluth does not appear lacking in democratic vitality. Three of the past four mayors left office after unsuccessful re-election bids. The city’s voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election was an impressive 79.35 percent.
Miletich’s call for term limits for the sake of “more and broader citizen participation” strikes us as a flawed remedy for a nonexistent problem. The charter commission should reject his motion.