Term Limits for Beverly Hills: Why the Hurry?

Beverly Hills city councilmember John Mirisch has stood out as a champion of new ideas. He wants the city to provide land so that nonprofits can build senior housing. He wants developers to set aside one in every five new dwelling units as permanently affordable. He favors city hall transparency and disfavors city hall inefficiency. He will always hold Metro’s feet to the fire. So why do his fellow councilmembers want to kick him off the island?

It comes down to term limits and, specifically, an opportunity to limit John Mirisch to the three city council terms that he’s already served. Let’s look at how term limits made it to the ballot and some possible motivations for putting it there.

Why Term Limits?

Former councilmembers Nancy Krasne and Robert Tanenbaum appeared before city council in July of last year with a plea for terms limits. They called for a lifetime cap of three terms of service in any elected city position which includes the city council and treasurer. But it wasn’t limiting the term of the treasurer or any past councilmember that I think concerned them. It was current councilmember John Mirisch.

Term limits proponents say that elected officials serve too long, and without term limits we would invite ‘career politicians.’ Krasne put a fine point on it in July when she groused to councilmembers, “Some of you have had 13 years.” Only one councilmember has served 13 years: John Mirisch.

Term-limits proponents also say that long-serving elected officials deny fresh-faces an opportunity to serve. “Open up the government to new people,” said former coucilmember Robert Tanenbaum in July. That too needs some perspective: in the 2015 council election not a single fresh-faced challenger stepped up and the two incumbents were simply reappointed to another four-year term. Two years later, in 2017, two first-time councilmembers were elected. Seems like “new people” have the opportunity to serve.

Besides, we have elections so people can choose, said a recent caller to city council. “We already have term limits and it’s called elections.” Beverly Hills has been electing councilmembers since the 1920s. Ten have served three terms. None has been elected to a fourth term. Elections seem to be working effectively to councilmembers to three terms.

Some additional context: Beverly Hill voters put an end to Krasne’s council service after only two terms as she was not reelected to a third term in 2017; Tanenbaum, too, was effectively ‘termed-out’ by voters after two terms when he failed to win a third-term. Voters didn’t need term limits to oust the representatives they didn’t want.

Why Term Limits Now?

When Mayor Lester Friedman heard the plea for term limits from Krasne & Tanenbaum it clearly resonated. The mayor agreed to put the matter to city council for discussion. Krasne and Tanenbaum came to the January 26th council meeting with a letter signed by ten former councilmembers to urge city council to put the question of term limits to voters. From the letter as read into the record:

We are concerned residents repeating our request submitted last year [July] to ask the council to place on the November 2nd 2021 ballot a measure to create term limits in the city of Beverly Hills. We suggest a lifetime limit of no more than three terms for any one position and this should apply to all residents and current office holders. (emphasis added)

The two key points: the question should go to voters in  November, which is an off-year election when Beverly Hills voters will have no real incentive to go to the polls; and term limits should be applied to current officeholder with the implication that terms already served should count against toward the lifetime limit of three terms.

The timing is crucial. Former councilmember Krasne told city council last July that it was “critically important” that term limits appear on this November’s ballot. But there are only two reasons to put an important initiative like term limits on the ballot in an off-year election: 1) to ensure that only voters concerned about term limits turn out to vote on it; and 2) to put term limits on the books before a three-term candidate runs for election to a fourth term in the June 2022 municipal election.

The objective was clear even if it was never stated plainly: if approved by voters in November, term limits would keep councilmember John Mirisch off the 2022 ballot.

The timing held appeal for a majority of our councilmembers. “I don’t really have a problem with it going on in November — I think quite frankly that is preferable,” said Mayor Les Friedman. His reasoning was that in an off-year election the term limits ballot measure would not be “totally overshadowed by top-ticket items” like a city council election. Councilmembers Lili Bosse and Julian Gold quickly agreed.

Vice-Mayor Wunderlich found the off-year election timing problematic though he agreed to put it to voters in November. John Mirisch, though, called it “a little bit discriminatory.” He didn’t state the obvious: that he is the only candidate immediately affected by term limits if enacted prior to the municipal election in 2022.

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

City council formally voted on February 16th to put the term limits measure on the ballot. But public comment ran hot; speakers railed against what they viewed as a transparent effort to keep Mirisch off the ballot. Some speakers linked that effort to a pro-development agenda on the part of city council and one even talked of corruption.

But there was a problem with the plan, council learned. State statutes won’t allow the question to appear in November because that’s not the next “regularly scheduled election” (as the statute requires) and also term limits may not be applied retrospectively in order to count terms already served.

Council reluctantly agreed to put the term limit measure to voters on June 7, 2022. However the resolution left open a crack for earlier action by adding a clause that says, “…or the next regularly scheduled election date, whichever is earlier….” If the legislature schedules a regular election before June then term limits could go to voters sooner.

The council’s interest to count terms already served toward the three-term lifetime limit proved more problematic. The statue is clear that, after enactment, term limits must be applied “prospectively.” The legislature intended that prior terms served can’t be counted. The council’s workaround on this point was to employ rhetorical gymnastics (and Orwellian logic) to construe prospectively to mean the counting of those prior terms.

The reasoning was so precarious that the city attorney candidly advised council that their interpretation of ‘prospectively’ could be challenged, and likely challenged successfully, which could invalidate the entire ordinance. To hedge its bet council included a ‘severability’ clause: if a court strikes down council’s effort to count terms retrospectively, then the remainder of the ordinance could stand.

Read ‘City Council Puts the Term Limits Question to Voters in 2022‘ for details on how council creatively redefined the term ‘prospectively’ in the term limits ordinance to mean counting an official’s prior terms.

Why the Haste?

City council was determined to put term limits to a vote of the people in an off-year election AND apply it to current officeholders retrospectively despite state statutes which plainly state otherwise. The prudent course of action would be put the measure on the 2022 ballot and not count terms served.

Instead council wants to leave open the possibility of an earlier poll on the measure; and it wants to count an official’s three terms against the limit once the measure is approved by voters. Why would councilmembers go to such lengths?

We can’t know what’s in a councilmember’s heart but we can speculate on the obvious reason: to keep John Mirisch off the 2022 ballot. A ballot sans Mirisch would….

Eliminate competition. Mirisch, Friedman and Wunderlich were elected in 2017 from a field of six candidates. Mirisch was the top vote-getter by a wide margin. If incumbents Mirisch, Friedman and Wunderlich choose to run again in June 2022, they will likely be competing against a crowded field of candidates vying for three open council seats. When the music stops one of those incumbents may not find a seat.

As the top vote-getter in 2017 Mirisch will be the presumed frontrunner in 2022. That puts significant pressure on his fellow incumbents if they run. It also boxes-out lesser-known but credible candidates who could tip the balance even more in favor of pro-growth policies. It would be in everybody’s interest to eliminate competition by applying term limits  to keep Mirisch off the ballot. (In the final vote, Councilmember Wunderlich withdrew his support for putting the initiative on any ballot sooner than June. A bare 3-2 majority moved ahead to do so.)

Change the dynamic on city council. The current council lineup has served together for more than four years and Mirisch has been an outsized presence on the council dais. He takes impassioned stands and introduces new ideas like councilmember districts to replace our at-large representative system. And in his last spin as mayor he loaded the council’s agenda with principled issues for discussion. It rankled his colleagues.

Notably, tension often emerged between Mirisch and Councilmember Gold who was quick to call for putting term limits on the November agenda. We can’t know what’s in councilmembers’ hearts, but one can only speculate that keeping Mirisch off the dais using term limits could bring a little more comity to council meetings.

Favor a pro-growth agenda. Development is and always has been a contentious issue in Beverly Hills. Mirisch has steadfastly resisted perennial pressures to grow big. Instead he insists that developers respect the city’s zoning (which tends to be low-rise) or else wants to extract significant pubic-interest give-backs in exchange for greater height, say.

Mirisch was in the council minority on the city’s new mixed-use ordinance and he publicly backed a resident effort to overturn the ordinance through a ballot initiative. That clearly put him at odds not only with the rest of city council but with property interests too. They stand to gain much from developing our major corridors with both commercial and residential uses.

In coming years the Hilton will come through the planning pipeline followed by creative offices on Civic Center Drive. We could see a mega project proposed near city hall and undoubtedly we will see countless mixed-use projects seeking council approval. The stakes are too high not to try to unseat a ‘slow-growth’ incumbent.

Consolidate influence among the already-influential. Public comments against term limits that would keep Mirisch off the ballot included unsubstantiated allegations of corruption. Rather it is political influence that is the problem. Country clubs, temples, business associations and service on city boards keeps our small town chummy. No fewer than seven former mayors have registered to lobby current city officials.

One lobbyist in particular is very close to city council. Judie Fenton, wife of former mayor Frank Fenton, registered in 2016 to work on behalf of the Hilton. But she’s better known for running the campaigns of councilmembers Les Friedman and Julian Gold. Putting another council seat in play in 2022 could allow her to run a third candidate.

Moreover, Fenton, until recently a Recreation & Parks Commissioner, left that position early in order to resume lobbing gain. With big development projects coming up for review in the years ahead, wouldn’t it be problematic to have a lobbyist whispering in the ear of three councilmembers? She’s already contacted our planning commission about the latest Hilton expansion.

Exact retribution. John Mirisch and Nancy Krasne were odd bedfellows on city council and the tension between them only ramped up as the 2017 election approached. Neither did much to hide their disfavor. The fact that Krasne failed to regain her seat on council while Mirisch cruised to victory must have rankled. Enacting term limits to keep Mirisch off the 2022 ballot is certainly a form of retribution.

In a certain way, keeping John Mirisch from the 2022 ballot is reminiscent of his first campaign in 2009. In that race opponents used his divorce against him to keep him off of city council. What’s more, opponents placed robocalls to city votes, purportedly from Mirisch, that asked for their support while the candidate slurred his speech. Those underhanded tactics didn’t work then. Three terms later, it seems like opponents who know they can’t defeat him at the polls have marshaled an argument for term limits to do the work for them.