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Editorial: When term limits aren't really limits

Following the news that former Livermore mayor John Marchand is planning to run for the position again after previously serving four terms, we've learned Livermore is not alone in the Tri-Valley -- Pleasanton and Dublin "term limits" are in fact temporary as well.
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Like many in the Tri-Valley, we were stunned as our team broke the news that former Livermore mayor John Marchand is planning to run for the position again this November in light of current Mayor Bob Woerner bowing out for health reasons after one term.

Wasn't Marchand just "termed out"? How could he come back after serving four terms?

Under basic city law in Livermore, that's how.

The Livermore Municipal Code does include "term limits," but as it turns out, the language only specifies "consecutive" years rather than an absolute maximum number of years. We were certainly surprised. We suspect many other people are too.

And in our ensuing research, we've learned Livermore is not alone in the Tri-Valley -- Pleasanton and Dublin "term limits" are in fact temporary as well; only the rule for San Ramon mayor service is definitive, like we see at the state level. Danville, of course, has no term limits.

We acknowledge our role in unintentionally perpetuating any misunderstanding by often using "term limits" and "termed out" unqualified in our past coverage. We apologize.

As we've looked internally, part of what is at play is the Pleasanton law was enacted by city voters before the Weekly launched in 2000, as well as the fact we can't remember a time when any candidate in Pleasanton or a neighboring community sought election again after reaching their initial limit.

That is no excuse, merely an attempt to explain an avoidable oversight we regret.

Plus, we know the main arguments for imposing a term limit are to encourage new blood to join the council and to prevent an old-guard from remaining in office unbridled -- oh, a cynic might argue too that it helps protect the electorate from itself.

So, on its face, a temporary limit rather than absolute seems a bit oxymoronic.

But very clearly voters at their time in Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin deliberately approved caveats in their local law, based on our new research of the city code or charter sections regarding terms of service, as well as insights from city attorneys.

The "term limit" law in Livermore is the most direct, making clear a mayor or council member could return after "eight consecutive years" if "he or she has a break in service in that office of at least two years." (See full text of Livermore's law at the bottom of the article, as well as all others relevant in the Tri-Valley.)
In theory then, a mayor of Livermore could serve eight years on, take two years off, try to win four more elections in a row for another eight years, take another two-year break and so on.

The Pleasanton "term of office" law, enacted by city voters in 1996, also centers on the phrase "consecutive terms" -- two for council, four for mayor.
Pleasanton city attorney Dan Sodergren told us he interprets the local statute to mean that "a council member could run for a third term if the term is not consecutive. The same for the mayor who could run for a fifth term if it is not consecutive."

Dublin's 235-word ordinance is also consecutive-based, but a bit more convoluted because city voters decided the eight straight years would be measured cumulatively among council time and mayoral service. So two four-year council terms would trigger a mandated interruption, as would one term as a regular council member followed immediately by two terms as mayor.

City staff confirmed they interpret Dublin's law to mean an eight-year council member or mayor could run again with a break in service.

Dublin's rule includes an additional layer to define a term as two years plus one day. That qualification almost came into play unexpectedly in 2020 when then-mayor David Haubert was initially thought to be "terming out," only to learn his term clock based on when he was sworn in fell short of two years plus one day stipulation. It ended up being moot with Haubert seeking and winning election to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

San Ramon has no term limits for regular City Council seats (current Councilman Scott Perkins is in his fifth term, for example), but city voters did impose a maximum of four two-year terms for mayors.

That total is cumulative, and not just consecutive. Although there was a caveat added when San Ramon converted from odd-year to even-year elections, allowing the mayor to serve no more than nine years because of the added year from that switch.

That means someone like Bill Clarkson, who reached the "term limit" in 2020, can't run for mayor ever again in San Ramon -- but the door could be open for a City Council seat.

The Danville Municipal Code does not reference term limits at all because it does not need to. Town or city council members have no term limits under state law so they only happen when adopted by public vote, Danville city attorney Robert Ewing told us.

Danville has seen some long-tenured council members over the decades -- no sitting Town Council member has ever lost a re-election bid since Danville incorporated in 1982. Current Mayor Newell Arnerich has been on the council since 1995; Councilwoman Karen Stepper since 2002.

So that's where our research landed us. The Tri-Valley's "term limits" are, for the most part, just temporary.

To be clear, we are not casting any aspersions on Marchand's planned candidacy. He is, as we've laid out, well within his rights under city law to pursue another term. And he probably has a great chance; he is arguably Livermore's best mayor in modern memory. We look forward to hearing more about his campaign vision, his new plans for Livermore, in the months to come.

We also wonder, though, if other experienced leaders have considered re-entering the local political fray, or might consider it now. With their consecutive clocks reset, names like Jerry Pentin, Jennifer Hosterman and Matt Sullivan in Pleasanton or Arun Goel and Tim Sbranti in Dublin come to mind initially.

The local laws in those communities would welcome the possibility with open arms, as we now know.

Since any term restrictions can only be enacted by a vote of the people, we can only assume that (most) residents casting ballots in Pleasanton, Livermore or Dublin at the time knew exactly what they were voting for: an interruption in consecutive service only, not a permanent maximum tenure.

The problem is in some cases their city's election was a generation ago or more, and the letter of the law -- and the spirit of the law -- can become conflated to the casual observer over time. (For some insiders too, as we've found.) You hear an official say they're "termed out" or you see the newspaper cite a "term limit" and it's reasonable to conclude that terminology is absolute, absent clarifying caveats.

We promise to do better in that regard. Look for us to begin using verbiage like "temporarily termed out" going forward to help avoid further confusion.

And this could well be a vow in perpetuity. Remember: Just as starting a new term restriction requires a public vote, any amendment to a city's existing "term limit" law (even just a single word change) can only be made via an election, not through council-level action.

Relevant code sections, verbatim

Livermore

No person who has served terms totaling eight consecutive years as mayor shall be qualified for further service in that office until he or she has a break in service in that office of at least two years.

No person who has served terms totaling eight consecutive years as a Council member shall be qualified for further service in that office until he or she has a break in service in that office of at least two years.

Pleasanton

A council member (other than mayor) shall serve no more than two consecutive terms and a person who has been appointed or elected to council for more than two years shall serve no more than one additional term
A mayor shall serve no more than four consecutive terms and a person who has been appointed or elected to mayor for more than one year shall serve no more than three additional terms.

Dublin

No person shall serve as Councilmember for more than two (2) consecutive terms, nor shall any person serve as Mayor for more than four (4) consecutive terms. In addition: (A) no person who has served as a Councilmember for one (1) term shall serve more than two (2) terms as Mayor if the terms as Councilmember and Mayor are consecutive; (B) no person who has served as Councilmember for two (2) consecutive terms shall serve a consecutive term as Mayor; (C) no person who has served as Mayor for three (3) or four (4) consecutive terms shall serve a consecutive term as a Councilmember; (D) no person who has served as Mayor for two (2) consecutive terms shall serve more than one (1) succeeding consecutive term as Councilmember; (E) no person who has served consecutive terms as Mayor and Councilmember shall serve more than one (1) more consecutive term as Mayor; and (F) no person who has served consecutive terms as Mayor and Councilmember shall serve another consecutive term as Councilmember. As used herein, a person shall be considered to have served a term of office as a Councilmember if such person has served as a Councilmember for two (2) years plus one (1) day and a person shall be considered to have served a term of office as Mayor if such person has served as Mayor for one (1) year plus one (1) day.

San Ramon

The Mayor shall be elected by plurality at an election to be held every two years. The term of the Mayor elected in 2013 shall be lengthened by one year to accommodate changing the date of the general municipal election from odd-numbered to even-numbered years. No elected Mayor shall serve for more than four two year terms except that a cumulative total of nine years may be served if one of those terms was lengthened as the result of change the date of the general municipal election. Duties of the elected Mayor shall remain the same as the duties of the Mayor as of January 1, 2001. Compensation for the elected Mayor of San Ramon shall be one hundred dollars per month more that a Councilmember. This Charter amendment shall not be effective unless the measure on the November 5, 2013 ballot changing the date of the general municipal election to even-numbered years is approved by the voters.

Though Danville has no such section because the town has no term limits, Ewing provided for reference California Government Code Section 36502(b):

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the city council of a general law or charter city may adopt or the residents of the city may propose, by initiative, a proposal to limit or repeal a limit on the number of terms a member of the city council may serve on the city council, or the number of terms an elected mayor may serve. Any proposal to limit the number of terms a member of the city council may serve on the city council, or the number of terms an elected mayor may serve, shall apply prospectively only and shall not become operative unless it is submitted to the electors of the city at a regularly scheduled election and a majority of the votes cast on the question favor the adoption of the proposal.