Steve Rose

Does Jackson County need term limits? Johnson County governments could provide an answer

Former Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert is seeking another term as chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners.
Former Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert is seeking another term as chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, despite a few naysayers, is regarded as a highly successful mayor. Yet, even though the city would be well served if he could be re-elected next year, term limits of eight years have been imposed on him and City Council members, thanks to a law concocted in 1990 by citizens who must have been disgruntled.

There obviously was and is a belief that voters in Kansas City could not possibly determine the competence of elected officials after two terms. It reflects an antagonism toward politicians, who are prejudged as inherently so flawed that they need a deadline to be removed without a vote.

Limiting politicians’ time in office risks doing as much harm as good. It punishes and removes those who are doing an outstanding job.

For an example of smooth-running governments without such constraints, consider how well elected officials function in Johnson County with no term limits for mayors, city council members or county commissioners. Voters alone decide if and when it is time for an elected official to go.

Former Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert served 24 years in that office. He now is seeking his third term as chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners. His past performance has been stellar, and the community has been fortunate to have his expertise working on their behalf.

Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn is now in her 21st year at the helm. Olathe’s Mayor Michael Copeland was first elected in 2001. Lenexa’s Michael Boehm became mayor in 2003. And Overland Park’s Carl Gerlach was elected mayor in 2005. These are the mayors of some of the best run cities in America.

The Kansas Legislature has no term limits, while Missouri’s does. Is the Missouri legislature any better off with this limitation? The answer is no.

In recent elections, we’ve seen democracy in action in Kansas as voters elected a wave of conservatives to the Legislature. Then, after a bad experiment, a majority voted in a subsequent election to change that by ousting a large number of conservatives and installing more moderates. Term limits were not required to make drastic changes.

Voters in Jackson County will decide in August whether to handcuff themselves by imposing term limits on elected county legislators and the county executive.

If I lived in Jackson County, I would vote no. Admittedly, there have been plenty of controversies there, including a lot of friction between legislators and the county executive. The jail is dysfunctional, and a former county executive may be headed for prison.

With all that going wrong, it is understandable that term limits would be considered. That so-called cure is supposed to deliver fresh, more effective county government. But will it really lead to better results? Nothing is assured. It could be a lot worse, depending on who is term-limited out and who replaces them.

Under term limits, there is an assumption that voters cannot right the ship on their own. But they can. And by making the decision themselves whether to remove someone from office, they will have the best shot at getting rid of the bad apples, while keeping those who are serving the county well.

The real pitfall in imposing such limits is that the high-performing officials, who are doing great work for the county are forced out arbitrarily.

Term limits are an attempt to save voters from themselves. This grossly underestimates the judgment of the people who are voting and vastly overestimates the value in making change just for change’s sake.

With term limits, the people have abdicated their responsibility to evaluate elected officials, and to decide whether a public servant deserves to continue to serve. The people have willingly surrendered their freedom to cast their ballot to determine the fate of those in office after eight years. Term limits throws the good out with the bad, which is a lousy way to run a democracy. In fact, it is a sad testimony to a weakened democracy.