The D.C. Council repealed term limits for the city's elected officials yesterday, rejecting the restrictions that 62 percent of District voters approved in a 1994 referendum.
It marked the first time that an elected body has overturned a term-limits initiative without the consent of voters, said Paul Jacob, national director of U.S. Term Limits, an organization that supports term-limit laws at the national, state and local levels.
Nine of the council's 13 members -- a veto-proof majority -- voted to abolish term limits for the mayor, the council and the four elected members of the D.C. Board of Education. They argued that the 1994 measure was on shaky constitutional ground and interfered with the right of D.C. residents to choose their leaders.
That argument rang hollow with term-limit proponents, who said the council's action was a self-serving attempt by lawmakers to preserve their own jobs. It was particularly hypocritical, some contended, in a city whose leaders constantly ask Congress to stay out of local affairs and honor the wishes of District residents to govern themselves.
"If you're in a city struggling to get representation in the first place, that's a terrible signal to say that your own local officials don't respect their own citizens," Jacob said. "It's a very unusual step for an elective body to throw out a vote of the people."
Not so unusual in the District, however. Since 1990, the D.C. Council has scrapped campaign finance limits, minimum mandatory sentences for drug dealers and the right of the homeless to shelter on demand -- each of which had been approved at the polls by voters.
Term limits were scheduled to take effect in 2004, limiting elected officials to two consecutive four-year terms. But in January, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced the bill to repeal the voter initiative.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) defended the repeal, saying the ballot box already provides "a natural way for term limits to occur."
"If citizens don't want someone, they vote them out," Cropp said. "Over the past 10 years, our council has had a complete makeover" without term limits.
The measure now goes to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who opposes term limits but is considering a veto. Williams argued unsuccessfully to have the mayor's office excluded from the repeal.
Each side in the debate has accused the other of being undemocratic. Supporters of the repeal argued that term limits unfairly constrain voters' options, while opponents pointed to the success of the voter initiative.
"A lot of people are going to express their disapproval of the council's action at the election booth," predicted Deairich R. Hunter, a lawyer and former council aide who led a lobbying effort to preserve term limits. "They've given their opponents a very good issue to run on."
Proponents of the repeal also have used legal arguments to make their case. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said the voter initiative was invalid because it effectively created new qualifications for elective office in the District, which amounted to a change in the 1973 Home Rule Charter. The charter can be changed only by Congress or by a council-initiated charter amendment, he said.
That interpretation was buttressed by an opinion from the council's general counsel. Orange yesterday also produced two older opinions from the D.C. corporation counsel's office to support his position: a 1989 letter arguing that imposing term limits on the mayor "exceeds the scope of the legislative authority granted the council" and a 1994 opinion that term limits amounted to amending the charter.
Voting against repeal were council members Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
Jacob said term limits have been under attack since a wave of jurisdictions approved them in the early 1990s. But he said that to his knowledge, the only cases in which term limits were overturned involved decisions by courts rather than lawmakers.
"From Day One," he said, "this has been a battle between what the people want and what the servants want."