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G-Sync: Term limits would curb our city's potential

Can you imagine loading software on your computer from 1994? Neither can Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen, who takes a close look at why he's voting "no" on the upcoming ballot proposal on term limits for Grand Rapids government. 
Term limits are something that our founding fathers had the opportunity to place in the Constitution but decided, after much debate, that such a move was not favorable to the goals of democracy. Well, that was a long time ago and much has changed. This election season, Grand Rapids voters will face yet another ballot measure seeking to implement term limits – a move I believe would be a big mistake.
Yes, I believe we can all make the argument that government in one way or another has let us down but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water, as they say. We need to remind local voters that it is not enough anymore to simply say you are disappointed or upset with government leadership; in addition, you need to articulate a reason or offer a solution as to how it could be better.
Our founders believed in opportunity for all and that when it came to choosing who we wanted to represent us we went to the ballot box to cast our vote. This works from the federal all the way down to the local level. And one thing I have come to rely upon is the awesome power of history to help us make the right decision moving forward. We must use the lens of history to learn from our mistakes, and term limit proponents Rina Baker and Bonnie Burke have clearly skipped this part of the process.
When I view the ballot proposal seeking to enact term limits this Nov. 4, I am sympathetic to the way it might appeal to (and sadly, prey upon) the angry voter who feels inclined to say, as was often repeated in the popular film, Network, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." But being angry and acting out in this manner is not good for our city even if it does make a fun bumper sticker or flag to fly over your downtown home.
Both those for and against term limits have had very little time to seriously make an educated case with the voters. The petition's signatures were only just approved in August of this year to appear on the November ballot. What we do know in Michigan from being under one of the nation's worst term limits laws for more than 20 years is that they do not work. (See "The Effects of a Term Limited Legislature in Michigan" 2012 Study)
Our state's term limit ballot measure rode a wave of similar ones that swept over the country in the 1990s. At the height of term limit popularity, as many as 21 states passed some version of the law, a number that has since dwindled to 15 states still left with these laws on the books. In fact, term limit laws have been such a bad idea that no state since 2000 has successfully enacted them after seeing the mess others have created for their populations. In addition, once they are installed they are very difficult to modify or remove.  
The Grand Rapids ballot measure – simply a cut-and-paste piece of legislation, adding none of the wisdom gleaned from the failed or suggested modifications of other states -- seeks to install a bad policy by a group of angry voters whose unhappiness is probably best aimed at the federal or state government when you look at their reasons.
I would understand those who favor adding term limits at the local level if their concerns about outside influence or lack of transparency were indeed problems at work in Grand Rapids. In fact, our city government has never been more open than it is today. Our financial standing has never been better since the crash of 2008, with a projected surplus posting in 2015 at a time when other cities are still struggling to regain their footing. And our city staff and elected leaders are always finding news ways to increase the user's experience by granting more access to the political process, not limiting it. It may not be perfect, but it is evolving ever forward towards greater accountability.
Dangers of short-term thinking and policy

Here is where the problem lies with the short-term solution of enacting bad policy based on emotions, like the term limits proposal: It is not the real solution they seek.
When we approach an election season based solely on what a 24/7 news channel says we should think or by surrounding ourselves only with voices that reinforce our belief system, then we can fall into an intellectual hamster wheel, spinning around over and over. And this is, in my opinion, where we get into trouble. We see a lot of energy expended but little has changed concerning our outlook. 
I have discovered over three decades in Grand Rapids that one of the best and easiest ways to be heard and get involved in our city is simply to begin showing up at a city hall meeting where anyone can weigh in during the public comment section of the agenda. Often from there staffers or elected officials begin to engage with folks, helping them get connected to their government by creating a path to a solution. But you have to venture out of that comfort zone and create this new path.
This is how extraordinary citizens, with a wealth of skills and knowledge, learn to work with local elected officials and staff members on projects that make our city better.
How do term limits affect this cooperative cycle? We can start by being honest about what term limits really mean by looking at our patterns from the last election cycle.
In a recent report on the 2012 congressional elections it was discovered that 91 percent of the Senate and 90 percent of the House incumbents were reelected. This was during a time of voter anger where Congress had a 21 percent approval rating.
What does this tell us?
We say we want term limits to oust the incumbent candidate but in reality we want to oust the "other."
Term limits were meant to inhibit bad policy or to weaken a party in power. Most often the person advocating for term limits is somebody outside the scope or realm of where decisions are made, as in this case with Washington, D.C. or any other body of government where decisions and policies are made.
Unlike at the federal and state level, local government presents us with a real opportunity for people to come and directly petition those people in public office via the city hall commission meeting -- and, increasingly, via technology. And here in Grand Rapids, please hear me when I say that our local system is working as our founders intended.
The public has shown in election after election an interest in joining together to solve issues like roads, public transportation, and even our parks. We have a growing population of citizens who are very passionate about the many issues before us and, as an informed body of citizens, they continue to vote, lead committees, and work alongside our elected officials and city staff.
Of course there is always room for improvement
The way to solve the problems of our government at the state and federal level is to argue for a few changes that begin to take root at the local level. We can start by educating the voting public year-round: to move candidates beyond sound bytes, to demand more than 350-word articles to explain complex matters, and really press to have focused dialogue about what kind of city we want and how we will get there. We need more democracy talk and action in the public, and we need all the voices at the table.
Another opportunity to lead at the local level is to insist that the way we carve up our districts begins to honor neighborhoods instead of the messy maps produced by decades of gerrymandering. It is shameful that we have not hit the reset button on these maps but we can start it here with smart pro-solution policies.
We also have to become aggressive about the tampering of our political system by those with money. What neighborhood association does not watch the campaign reports on the evening news and cringe at the shameful amounts of cash attempting to buy the office and our attention (not to mention filling our landfills and in-boxes with trash). The realities of our elections are that they take too much cash and go on far too long. 
What else could improve representation?
We as a city should begin to advocate for expanded voting times. We already allow absentee voting to accommodate dear old grandma's lack of mobility and possibly missing the big day, so why not add even greater access points to the millennial generation? Shouldn't the millennial voter be able to flex their muscle over platforms that ensure they are heard since it is their future city we are creating here?
What about adding more access points for people to vote, from electronic options to even more locations tied to where you play or work instead of just where you live or worship? The goal is greater involvement and participation so let's give people a place to be heard.
By far the most radical move would be to add more voices to the table. Savvy leaders within corporations and nonprofits sectors are already doing it, so why not do it with those we seat in the city hall chambers? Not only would adding more representatives from our three wards better serve our growing population, but such a radical and welcoming move would be the gridlock buster I think all sides would agree is needed if we are truly looking at what greater diversity can produce for us here.
This is how we shake up our local government, not via misguided term limit policies that would deprive our city of the accumulated wisdom and institutional knowledge that leaders gain over time. The goal of our city moving forward should continue to be to root out bad policy, ensure all voices continue to be heard, and find greater access points for all citizens to contribute to the education and dialogue about what kind of city we hope to be.
Election time is a place where dialogue should begin. Let's just keep it going all year long. Please Vote No on term limits on Nov. 4.
The Future Needs All of Us (to enact pro-solution policies.)
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
Voter Note: If you believe you will not be able to get to your polling place on election for a host of reasons on file at the clerks office, it is recommended that if you want to ensure your voice is recorded that you vote in advance at Grand Rapids city hall. LINK: http://grcity.us/city-clerk/Pages/default.aspx
Please consider any one of these great events happening in your city this week. Visit G-Sync: Let's Do This!
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