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At hearing, voters have their say on term limits

WHITE Elected: 1967 Served 16 years WHITE
Elected: 1967
Served 16 years
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / December 15, 2009

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Councilor at Large Sam Yoon, who was defeated this fall in his bid to stop Mayor Thomas M. Menino from winning a fifth four-year term, said yesterday he is just one vote shy of having the majority support he needs to advance a measure that would impose a term limit for Boston’s top job.

Yoon insisted several times yesterday that term limits have “nothing to do with Mayor Menino,’’ but the mayor’s longevity in office animated many of the residents who testified in support of the bill at a packed City Council hearing. Several pointed out that no incumbent mayor of Boston has lost a reelection bid since 1949, when James Michael Curley, who had served five months in federal prison for mail fraud, was ousted by John Hynes.

“Voters do feel a chilling effect when they feel like the election outcome is out of their hands with a perpetual incumbent,’’ said Sandy Kautz, who described herself as an activist from Roslindale.

“I believe, especially in Boston, that term limits are crucial, because our system is a strong-mayor system, where there are very little checks and balances, and there is very limited accountability for some of these decisions that a mayor makes.’’

Yoon’s bill, which would require approval by Menino and the Legislature, would limit the mayor to two four-year terms. It would not apply to the City Council.

Councilors Maureen E. Feeney, Mark Ciommo, Bill Linehan, and Charles C. Yancey declared at the hearing that they oppose the measure.

“Term limits are an antidemocratic measure, because it would force incumbents who serve a certain term to step down,’’ said Yancey, who has served for 25 years on the City Council. “The people should decide when they step down.’’

Linehan said he would not support term limits “in any way, shape, or form.’’

“It limits choice and the opportunity to participate,’’ he said.

And Feeney invoked the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who served 47 years in office.

“Surely, the state and the country would have lost so much if we had placed term limits on his time in office,’’ she said.

Yoon said he currently has the support of five other councilors on the 13-member council: Michael F. Flaherty Jr., Michael P. Ross, Chuck Turner, John R. Connolly, and John M. Tobin Jr.

Tobin said he would support term limits only if they applied to city councilors as well. Connolly said he would introduce an amendment that would limit councilors to six two-year terms.

Yoon said he is willing to make those changes if that is what his colleagues want. “I’m looking for a win,’’ he said. The council is scheduled to vote on the issue tomorrow at its final meeting of the year.

Menino has not said whether he would sign a term limits measure.

During his reelection campaign this fall, Menino criticized term limits, declaring during one debate that he has “term limits every four years,’’ when the city holds mayoral elections. But Kevin McCrea, a South End businessman who ran against Menino in this year’s mayor’s race, asserted at the council hearing that the mayor had told him over dinner at Hamersley’s Bistro that he would sign a term-limits bill if it came to his desk.

In an interview with WBZ-AM yesterday morning, Menino said “continuity in office isn’t a bad thing’’ and that the public “has the opportunity to make those decisions who is their mayor for the next four years.’’

Still, he said, “whatever the council will do, I’ll look at and try to do the best I can.’’

Dot Joyce, a Menino spokeswoman, refused to elaborate, saying term limits are a “council issue.’’ She would not comment on Menino’s conversation with McCrea, saying it was “a private dinner.’’

The measure would not be retroactive. Menino, already the longest-serving mayor in Boston history, could run for two more four-year terms if the bill became law.

In Massachusetts, only two cities impose term limits on their mayors, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Lawrence limits its mayor to two four-year terms, while Methuen’s mayor is limited to three two-year terms.

At the hearing yesterday, many residents argued that the measure would encourage more competitive municipal elections, increase voter turnout, and bring fresh ideas and new leadership to City Hall. Feeney, who chaired the hearing, said she had received 70 phone calls and e-mails about the issue - the vast majority of them supporting term limits.

ChunFai Chan, a West Roxbury resident who worked on Yoon’s campaign, likened the current mayoral election system to “a three-day-old piece of bread sitting on the kitchen table.’’ Anne M. Pistorio, a member of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, said, “The job-for-life mentality has to go.’’

And Dorothea Jones, a member of the Democratic State Committee from Roxbury, said, “Entrenched power does not mean more democracy.’’

If the office were limited to two terms, “the existing mayor will focus more on the job at hand than on maintaining a political machine,’’ said Stephen Gaun, a policy analyst intern at MassVote, a nonpartisan voting rights group that is backing Yoon’s bill.

Only one resident spoke out against term limits. Mary McCarthy of Dorchester said “term limits already exist’’ in the form of quadrennial mayoral elections.

“That is the power of the vote,’’ McCarthy said. “We can choose who we want.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a designer's error, a caption under pictures of recent Boston mayors in Tuesday's Metro section misstated the number of years Raymond L. Flynn held the office. Flynn was mayor for 9 1/2 years.