Term Limits for Council? It’s Time to Talk!

Free Press Writer Patrick Maloney, in his article “Just how long is too long?” (LFP Monday, Jan. 6/2014) raises an interesting and thought provoking question.  Should there be term limits for those serving on municipal council? And, if one subscribes to the view that Council acts as the Board of Directors for the Corporation of the City of London, as they (Councillors) readily claim that they are, why then should a member of any board or council have a limitless term? Really good question.

As I started to poke around the issue, I first thought of scanning the very long and cumbersome Municipal Act (Municipal Act, 2001, S.O. 2001, CHAPTER 25) under which most aspects of local municipal authorities are governed. There, under PART II GENERAL MUNICIPAL POWERS – Scope of powers, two things jumped out at me that I thought were germane to the argument: one,


8.  (1)  The powers of a municipality under this or any other Act shall be interpreted broadly so as to confer broad authority on the municipality to enable the municipality to govern its affairs as it considers appropriate and to enhance the municipality’s ability to respond to municipal issues. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 8. – and two:


(2)  A single-tier municipality may pass by-laws respecting the following matters:

1. Governance structure of the municipality and its local boards.

Clearly, I am no lawyer, and there are many who are far more capable of deciphering the Municipal Act than I, but at first blush, it would appear to me that London, or any municipality in Ontario, may have the right under the Act to set its own term limits for councillors.

So let’s assume for the moment that it is possible to establish a local by-law limiting these terms. What about best practices and best results? I know it’s not the same as City Council but, here at the Chamber we have a very specific set of term limits for directors (the Board) which allows for the proper mix of continuity, wisdom, sage advice, and importantly – new ideas, fresh thought, and energy. With a two-year term extended by mutual consent for one more two year term, you end up with the ideal mix for a board of this nature. Some can move up to the executive ranks which can extend their term another four years if they are selected as a candidate for President of the Board. In their view, this is quite enough time indeed in service to the business community. This type of format yields the greatest productivity within a defined time limit, maximizes the energies required to deliver peak performance within that time line, and critically – says to the rest of the business community that there is room for you and you are encouraged to put your hat in the ring. In a perfect world, and if all the conditions remain as planned you end up with a churn or attrition rate of about one-third, one-third, one-third.  In other words, a third of the directors are moving out of their terms while another third are just moving in. This provides for the greatest balance, again the best continuity, and it keeps administration on its toes. The Chamber is not the only one that operates with term limits.  The LEDC, the London International Airport Authority, the London. St. Thomas Real Estate Board, the London Home Builders Association, LHSC, and the list goes on and on. Why, because in one fashion or another, these organizations know that it works. It’s simply good governance.

Looking at other models, in New York City for instance, a two-term limit was imposed on City Council members and citywide elected officials after a 1993 referendum there.  And referendums to have it extended have twice failed. Similarly, U.S. President’s are limited to two terms.

And none of us needs to be reminded of the outrage over the recent Senate scandals in Canada with many organizations calling for complete reform of the upper chamber including defined term limits.

There are likely no perfect answers to the question and different arguments from both sides are worthy of more discussion. Will term limits result in “citizen legislators,” bringing more common sense and real-world experience to City Council? Probably not – as there is no evidence that term-limited councillors are any different in their political experience and ambition than those who are not term-limited. Will term limits make councils more diverse? Again, probably not as term-limited councillors are not noticeably different in occupational profile, average age, gender or race.

And then there is the question of will term limits increase competition and decrease campaign spending? I’m guessing that these won’t likely change with term limits, although their patterns might. A term-limited incumbent is rarely challenged for re-election. Instead, people interested in the job will wait for his/her final term.  A good thing? –  not so sure.

How about this one? Will term limits strip council of experience and policy knowledge?  It’s true that dealing with council matters can be complex and it’s also true that in most cases effectiveness will increase with experience to some degree.

All of these questions and more will require vigorous debate and full consideration here in London as well as municipalities right across the province. And with the greatest respect to those long-serving councillors who have worked hard and served their community well for all these years, the time for a fulsome, practical discussion on the benefits associated with defined term limits is now. London has a choice when it comes to this discussion.  We can lead, follow, or, ________(fill in the blanks).


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