Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
Councilmember Alan Gerson, rear, listened to members of the public speak on term limits last week with Councilmembers Simcha Felder, chairperson of the Government Operations Committee, center, and Helen Sears.
Gerson coming to terms on referendum and limits
By Josh Rogers
Councilmember Alan Gerson said Wednesday he could vote “yes,” “no” or not at all Thursday on the bill that would allow him to run for reelection next year and would extend term limits on most other city officials from eight to 12 years.
Gerson, who represents most of Lower Manhattan, and two of his colleagues plan to introduce what they call an amendment to the bill backed by Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The amendment, which would negate the effect of the proposed bill, would create a charter review commission with the intent of setting up a special election early next year to extend term limits.
At a press conference Wednesday, Gerson insisted his position on how to change term limits has remained consistent over his seven years in the Council, but at the same time he acknowledged that he once opposed the idea of the City Council defying voter referenda on term limits, and now he was open to doing precisely that.
“I have been clear overwhelmingly and repeatedly,” Gerson told Downtown Express. “It should be done through a referendum and it should be done on the regular election day period. And yes I have said I am opposed to doing it any other way and that is why I am supporting the amendment.”
Gerson said if the amendment, also sponsored by Councilmembers David Yassky and Gale Brewer, fails he could vote either way or choose to abstain something he said he has never done before.
“I don’t like abstentions,” Gerson told reporters outside City Hall. “I am inclined against [an abstention] but I have not ruled out absolutely any option.”
Yassky said he would not abstain if the amendment failed.
Gerson said he has been trying for “months” to get the mayor and Quinn to agree to put the referendum on the ballot this general election, but the mayor refused. Since it is now too late for this election, Gerson said a special election is the next best option, but it is less than ideal because such elections usually have a low turnout. At one point, Gerson implied he would vote for the mayor’s bill if the amendment failed, but in response to most other questions he said he was undecided.
“If one thing is ruled out you go to the next closest position,” he said in reference to the special election amendment. “If another thing is ruled out, you gotta go to the next best position.”
He said the “context has materially changed” for changing term limits because of the economic crisis, which he said could be worse than the Great Depression.
Gerson said one male councilmember (he referred to the person as “he”) who is being counted as a “yes” vote on the current bill, has privately told Gerson that he will vote for the amendment.
The trio backing the amendment said they did not know yet how much support it will have.
“I do know many of the councilmembers believe the referendum option is the better way to go,” Yassky said.
The amendment is nearly identical to a proposal by Councilmember Bill de Blasio which Quinn has blocked from coming to the floor for a vote. De Blasio and Councilmember Letitia James took the matter to state court Wednesday, but were reportedly unsuccessful.
Gerson and his allies said they believed there was nothing stopping them from introducing the amendment Thursday before the final vote. They have met with Quinn repeatedly over the last few days. They denied suggestions from reporters that the amendment vote was a face-saving “fig leaf” they received in exchange for their support for the bill.
Brewer said she is still undecided on the bill and no one has asked her to make any promises in connection with the amendment.
Gerson said if term limits are extended, regardless of how it is done, his intent is to run for reelection.
Yassky, who is planning to run for city comptroller, said he thinks the limits should be changed to 12 years but the bill is “not a good way to do it.”
Yassky said the amendment would give the council the power to name all members of the charter commission. He and Gerson said they opposed Ron Lauder being named to the commission. Lauder, who paid for the referendum campaign to implement term limits in 1993, agreed to support Bloomberg’s bid for a third term after the mayor promised Lauder a seat on the commission.
Gerson said if he had to accept Lauder on a large commission as a condition of getting the amendment passed, he would support the measure.
He told reporters he feels like he’s damned whatever he does. He said his support for the amendment is inconsistent with his previous position of a general election referendum if he votes for the Bloomberg-Quinn bill he will be open to conflict of interest accusations because it would give him a chance to keep his job, but if he votes against the bill it could be seen as a ploy to win support from good government groups opposing the bill.
“It’s in their interest to curry favor with the groups who are putting my poster and others all over the place,” Gerson said of his colleagues running for other offices and opposing the bill.
The Working Families Party has put up posters of Gerson in Lower Manhattan encouraging his constituents to pressure him to vote against the bill. But Gerson said he thought the posters were a fair attack.