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Michael Jonas | The Political Trail

Life support needed for Boston politics?

With a Boston city election just nine days away, this is supposed to be a time when lawn signs mix with fall foliage to create a colorful backdrop for the political hurly-burly that is part of the city's rich tradition.

Some signs are popping up, but the campaign itself is barely registering a pulse. Which is hardly surprising, since there is barely an election being held at all.

In the council race for four citywide seats, there are just five candidates with a serious shot at winning. That has reduced the contest to a game of musical chairs, with the only mystery being which one of the five will be left without a seat when the votes are counted. Five of the nine district council seats are going unchallenged, and the only district race with any real life is in Allston and Brighton, where two hopefuls are slugging it out for an open seat.

"I would dare say it's probably the quietest city election in decades," said City Councilor John Tobin of West Roxbury, one of the five district councilors who will face no opposition on Nov. 6.

What to do about the somnolent state of city politics? Tobin said it's time to reset the political playing field with term limits for both the City Council and mayor.

Two years ago, then-city councilor Maura Hennigan proposed mayoral term limits. But the move was widely viewed as a desperate campaign gimmick, since she was in the thick of a long-odds race against Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

If the timing of Hennigan's proposal doomed it from seeing the light of day during the campaign, that shouldn't keep the term limits idea from getting a serious airing outside the glare of an election season.

Though Tobin has made no secret of harboring mayoral ambitions of his own, he plans to file a term-limits proposal soon after next month's election, a full two years before the next mayor's election. What's more, unlike the plan floated by Hennigan - who at the time was the longest-serving member of the council, with 24 years under her belt - Tobin's proposal would cover city councilors as well as the mayor. He would limit all city officeholders to 12 years in power, while also extending council terms from two years to four years.

"I think it creates a sense of urgency to get things done," Tobin said. "I think 12 years is ample time to set out your vision for what you want to do, get it done, and then bring in some fresh blood."

It's the sort of urgency that has seemed lacking, for example, when it comes to reforming the Boston Fire Department. As reporter Donovan Slack chronicled last week in the Globe, three separate commissions have been named to look at operations in the department since Menino took office in 1993, with most of their recommendations left to gather dust. In the wake of reports that a firefighter was legally intoxicated and another had traces of cocaine in his system when they died in a West Roxbury restaurant fire in August, Menino has appointed yet another commission to examine department practices.

Tobin knows the arguments about elections being the way voters can impose term limits. "I used to think that way, too, until I got here," he said of the nearly unbeatable power of incumbency in city elections. "This is by no means an indictment of my colleagues or the current mayor," said Tobin, who would have the three-term limit begin with the next city election in 2009.

Menino was understandably dismissive of the term limits idea when Hennigan floated it in the heat of their race. And whether out of irritation at her grandstanding or fear of the mayor's wrath, Hennigan's council colleagues wouldn't even consent to a hearing on the proposal.

But convening a thoughtful discussion on the idea this time around might be the least the council could do at a time when city politics seems to be on its last hurrah.

Michael Jonas can be reached at

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