In this case, we think history should repeat itself. New Orleans voters have rejected three similar requests from previous mayors since 1961. In Gambit Weekly's 20-year history, we have twice urged our readers to reject proposals to extend mayoral terms -- in 1983 and in 1985. Morial's "3T" proposal likewise should be defeated.
Forty years ago, DeLesseps "Chep" Morrison became the first New Orleans mayor to ask voters to repeal the 1954 charter provision limiting mayors to two consecutive terms. At the time, Morrison was in his fourth consecutive term -- but his second since New Orleans adopted term limits. Voters defeated Morrison's proposal for unlimited terms. In 1983, Mayor Dutch Morial, the late father of the current mayor, asked voters to consider unlimited terms again. That measure also lost. In 1985, Dutch Morial asked voters to consider allowing mayors to run for just a third consecutive term. Voters rejected that proposal, too.
Dutch Morial and Chep Morrison were both dynamic, progressive mayors, and both were popular. But then, as now, voters recognized that popularity was not the issue. The issue was, and still is, about power and the potential abuse of power in the mayor's office.
Mayor Marc Morial's "3T" campaign -- which focuses on education -- reflects a change in political strategy from that of his predecessors. However, the fundamental issue remains the same, as do the arguments against removing term limits on New Orleans mayors.
First and foremost, our charter creates a delicate balance of power that has worked well since 1954. That balance should be preserved. New Orleans already has a strong mayor form of government; Morial's proposal would further concentrate power in the executive branch. The people of New Orleans believe in a strong executive, and to that end we give our mayors plenty of power to accomplish their programs. That grant of power is tempered, however, by the two-term limit, lest any mayor come to regard himself as "boss" rather than "public servant." As the English historian Lord John Acton wrote in 1887: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Second, though no less important, is the issue of patronage. Any second-term mayor, through his or her appointive powers, already controls a majority of the city's boards and commissions. Among them are the patronage-rich Aviation Board, the Sewerage & Water Board and the Regional Transit Authority. A third term for Morial thus would tighten his firm grip on agencies that are supposed to have some measure of independence -- and give him extraordinary control over city contracts and patronage for years to come.
We need only look at recent headlines emanating from City Hall for evidence of what a third Morial term would bring. Late last month, the Morial-controlled RTA awarded the mayor's uncle, Glenn Haydel, a $3.7 million financial consulting contract, extending his present contract for another five years and increasing his annual remuneration. That contract now extends through and beyond the first term of the next mayor -- an arrogant excess, pure and simple.
Morial has long dismissed criticisms of his patronage practices. He says his third-term campaign is about fixing New Orleans' troubled public schools. Baloney. In light of his administration's recent actions, we can only imagine what kinds of contracts he would let if voters allowed him to "rescue" our school system.
Finally, even with a two-term limit, politically ambitious mayors can raise extraordinary amounts of money from those who feed at the political trough. As of Sept. 10, Morial's campaign coffers for a third term exceeded $1 million. What kind of message does this send to businesses?
In the past, we have stood among Mayor Morial's staunchest supporters. We endorsed him for mayor in 1994 and 1998. We supported his $172 million bond issue in 1995 and his reform of the City Charter later that year. Even now, we count him among our city's best mayors, and we like him as much as ever.
But this issue is bigger than any one mayor, and it has nothing to do with popularity. The truth is we don't need term limits for unpopular mayors. Voters dispense with them easily enough. In the long run, we need the two-term limit to rein in our popular mayors. We need it to remind them that there's something more enduring than popularity -- and to keep them from becoming something other than what we elected them to be.
We therefore urge our readers to preserve the City Charter -- again. Vote NO on Saturday, Oct. 20.