Street Corner Soapbox

Categories:      Opinion
Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 at 7:59 AM


o legal challenge was filed to a ballot initiative that seeks to implement term limits on the county council and county executive offices, so we'll all be able to vote on it this November.

And you should vote yes! Term limits in county government is a great idea.

County Councilman Fiore Leone doesn't think so. In an interview with JET 24, he said he didn't think there should be limits on how long a public official should serve in office. After all, if they're doing a good job, shouldn't we keep them in?

“What you do by putting in term limits is disenfranchise voters,” he said.

Fiore Leone has served on the Erie County Council since 1978.

What Councilman Leone doesn't tell you is that incumbents have a huge advantage in any election, and especially in local government elections. After all, in local politics, name recognition is the key to electoral victory. And local government isn't covered well in local media, so an officeholder's actual record or performance doesn't come into play as much as it does in, say, a presidential election. So, the key to winning elections is merely by making public appearances, and occasionally showing up on television. And incumbents get to do both.

"Wait!" you're saying. What about this year's primary? Three incumbent county officeholders lost elections. Whitey Cleaver – an eight-year veteran of County Council – and Joe Giles – who sat on the council for over 20 years – lost their re-election bids, as did current County Executive Barry Grossman.

Yes, but, this was an unusual election. You could argue that Grossman's opponent, Kathy Dahlkemper, easily matched Grossman's name recognition: after all, she ran a successful bid for U.S. Congress. And you could guess that Dahlkemper's supporters, already in an anti-incumbent frame of mind, simply pulled the lever for every challenger. Which could explain why Cleaver lost.

You could also argue that, say, Giles' name recognition actually hurt his candidacy. You can appear in only so many reports showering in women's locker rooms and taking late-night drives with felony-prone boys before voters grow uneasy with you.

Still, neither scenario applies to the incumbents' actual records. Were Erie county voters unhappy with Barry Grossman's performance as county executive? It didn't seem so. Maybe some Erie voters were dissatisfied with Giles' disappearance for, and eventual “no” vote, on the community college, but that issue never surfaced in the recent primary. No challenger mentioned the community college, or mentioned Giles' role in its defeat.

That's a long way of saying that it's hard to defeat an incumbent, and only extraordinary circumstances conspire to remove them from office. But local government shouldn't be a lifetime appointment – or a lifestyle choice. We need constant renewal of ideas and talents in the office. We need to ensure that officeholders change with the times.

No one should serve on the county council for 35 years.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj. 

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