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Encouraged By Incumbents, Whitehall Reconsiders Term Limits

Nick Evans
Whitehall resident Joe Biser says he's backing Issue 37, which would extend term limits for local offices.

Halloween decorations compete with campaign signs in Whitehall’s front lawns. In yellow, black and red one sign shouts "No on 37," with “keep term limits” across the top. Another, like the one in Joe Biser’s front yard, is blue with a white check mark encouraging voters to “extend our progress” and vote yes instead. 

“They basically just want an extra term or a chance at an extra term because you still have to run for election and everything, and the way things are going I don’t see why they can’t have it, or at least have that chance,” explains Biser, a retired Whitehall electrician. “I mean, no sense in shooting yourself in the foot and get rid of somebody that’s doing a perfectly good job.”

The proposal is one of a handful or amendments from a charter review commission Whitehall puts together every five years.

Issue 37 would extend the number of terms local officials can serve consecutively from two to three. The last review commission proposed banning term limits outright, but more than 60 percent of voters rejected the idea.

Biser says part of his reasoning for voting yes is public safety.

“If you remember just a few years ago, Whitehall was having a lot of murders, and they’ve taken concrete steps to eliminate that,” Biser says. “And it’s been really good here the last year or so—I can’t remember when the last one was as a matter of fact.”

Whitehall homicides spiked in 2015, but none were recorded this year or last.

Tom Potter, a former city councilor and president of the city improvement corporation, is leading the "Yes on 37" campaign.

“O.K., so you have got a proven administration that’s doing a good job, not to suggest other people can’t, but if you’ve already got a proven track record and it’s going in the direction that you’d like to see it go in, why wouldn’t you want to extend?” Potter asks.

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Whitehall mayor Kim Maggard supports extending term limits, and says she would run for a third term if voters pass Issue 37 this November.

To Gerald Dixon, this why-switch-horses-midstream argument is exactly what term limits were meant to avoid. Dixon writes the Whitehall Watchblog, and a number of residents with "No on 37" signs in their yard pointed me in his direction.

“The point of term limits was to keep any one person, or group of people, out of—keep them from having a handle or stranglehold on power,” Dixon says.

Catherine Turcer from Common Cause Ohio focuses more on state politics, and she says there’s a reasonable debate to be had over whether to extend term limits. She notes that Ohio’s 2015 Constitutional Modernization Commission flirted with an extension for state lawmakers, before backing away from the idea.

But looking over a "Yes on 37" mailer, Turcer zeroes in on the way it touts current officeholders’ public safety achievements.

“That’s a very interesting approach,” she says, reading through bullet points about new K-9 units and school resource officers.

“Probably they know that term limits don’t, you know, that they poll really well—that voters actually like term limits,” Turcer continues. “So they’re highlighting some of the things that they did well in the past, or that they’re proud of. The problem is, that isn’t exactly connected to Issue 37.”

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Gerald Dixon is one of the leading opponents of Issue 37.

“I don’t believe it’s misleading,” Whitehall Mayor Kim Maggard insists. “For one thing, everybody in Whitehall knows what term limits are."

Maggard is nearing the end of her second term. She sees nothing wrong with using her administration’s accomplishments to pitch a term limit extension, and makes no bones about what she’ll do if voters approve Issue 37.

“No, I’ll say right now that if the voters decide that they want to give a third term to elected officials that I would run again,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Potential benefits for current officeholders rankle Dixon and other opponents. The city’s current treasurer is also treasurer for the "Yes on 37" campaign; it’s not illegal, but it leaves a bitter taste in their mouths.  And Dixon notes current law only require incumbents sit out of their current post for a term, between which they can run for other offices if they want.

“And it’s not to say that they will ever even leave city hall,” Dixon says, “but the point of the term limits is to put a kibosh on the constant endless power that they have in any one particular office.”

The term limits proposal is just one charter amendment voters will decide on come November. They’ll also consider implementing gender-neutral language in the Whitehall charter and new rules for replacing a mayor who leaves office early.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.