VOICES: Term limits bring consequences - some unintended

Ray Marcano
Ray Marcano

Kettering is getting closer to feeling the consequences - some of which may be unintended - of term limits for city council members.

The sociologist Robert K. Merton, in 1936, wrote a paper in the American Sociological Review titled, “The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action.” Merton’s work noted, “Unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences are outcomes that are not the outcomes intended by a purposeful action,” Merton writes.

Here’s where Kettering fits.

In 2012, the group Citizens for a Better Kettering spearheaded a drive resulting in term limits that restricted elected officials to eight years of service. That means either two terms as a council member council or mayor, or one term each. After that, you’d have to wait four years to run again.

It was a successful campaign, as 62% of voters — more than 17,000 — approved the term limits.

The clock started running in 2013. In two years, if the current limits stand, Kettering will have two council members (out of six) with two years of experience. The other four members, elected in 2023, will be brand new. Kettering will lose decades of collective council experience and institutional knowledge.

Peggy Lehner, the long-time state lawmaker who is running unopposed for Kettering mayor, is speaking out about the issues this is going to create for the city.

Losing all of that experience, for example, means Kettering loses its connections with national groups. Bruce Duke, a member of council for more than 30 years, serves on the board of directors of the National League of Cities. That gives him — and by extension, the city — the opportunity to build relationships with other municipalities grappling with similar issues and exchanging ideas on creative solutions.

Come 2023, Duke will be gone.

Peggy Lehner
Peggy Lehner

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

The term limits, as is, are “not providing continuity, leadership (or) experience,” Lehner said. “All of those things matter.”

Ron Alban, one of the organizers of Citizens for a Better Kettering, told me in an email he doesn’t live in the area anymore and wouldn’t be a good person to talk to on this issue. Lisa Crosley, another member, said she’d think about commenting but didn’t return subsequent phone calls.

People who seek term limits have said they don’t want entrenched career politicians doing things the same way and making the same decisions. They argue the limits bring new blood, fresh ideas and a different way of looking at problems, emphasizing the value of bringing in new points of view.

Kettering has done a superb job keeping its community vibrant. Over the years it’s helped revamp Town and County Shopping Center while other strip centers across America close. It’s brought in new housing stock with innovative options like the Prugh Woods development off East Dorothy Lane. I lived in Kettering for two decades and brought my mother and grandmother to live there because I was confident that if Kettering saw a problem, its leadership and experienced council would fix it.

A lot of that experience will be gone come 2023.

Lehner isn’t against term limits, but “at the very minimum I think we need to decouple the mayor from the council term limits.” Maybe 16 years total, with a maximum of two terms each for council and mayor? Maybe something different?

The Brookings Institution makes two compelling arguments: term limits actually decrease voter choice by limiting who can run, and limits kick out effective lawmakers who would still be willing to serve if allowed.

Cities and towns across America are grappling with this issue. The Colorado Municipal League keeps statistics on which communities have repealed, kept, or adjusted term limits; more than 50 times voters have repealed term limits since 1995 and roughly a dozen times voters kept term limits but increased .

Communities across the country that thought term limits were a good idea have seen the potential unintended consequences and changed course.

Whether that happens in Kettering is up to the residents there. But it will be a big topic of discussion over the next two years as the consequences of term limits start to hit.

Ray Marcano is a longtime journalist whose columns appear every Sunday on these pages. He can be reached at raymarcanoddn@gmail.com