In 1993, Suffolk County became the first county in New York State to adopt term limits for county officials. Now, legislation has been introduced to alter that law to provide that the officials covered would be barred from holding the same position for 12 years “in a lifetime, regardless of whether those terms are served consecutively or non-consecutively.”
The existing Suffolk term limits law only bars the county executive, legislators and the county comptroller from holding an office for more than 12 “consecutive” years.
But a problem with this arose this spring when a former county legislator, Kate Browning (D-Shirley) received the Democratic nomination to run again for the Suffolk Legislature. Ms. Browning had served as a legislator from 2005 to 2017. Then, term-limited by the 12 “consecutive” year rule, she did not run again.
She took a job as director of code enforcement in the Town of Babylon. This year, with the resignation of Legislator Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley) she sought to run again for her old seat on the legislature in a special election and complete his term.
However, a lawsuit was brought by two Republican voters in the legislative district and backed by the Suffolk GOP and State Supreme Court Justice James Hudson ruled her ineligible to run for the legislature again because of the 12-year limit. He wrote that the word “consecutive” in the Suffolk term limit law should be viewed as a “word of limitation and not as an invitation to run for office in the future” for the same office. But then the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, reversed that, deciding the Suffolk term limit law “does not expressly impose any total or lifetime term limit.”
Ms. Browning thus got back on the ballot, but lost the special election in May to Republican James Mazzarella (R-Moriches) by 3,207 to 2,106 votes. They will face each other again in the general election in November, this time running for a full two-year legislative term.
In June, newly elected Legislator Mazzarella joined with fellow Republican Legislators Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holbrook) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the GOP minority leader on the panel, in introducing the measure that would alter the wording of the county’s term limit law to say it prohibits the county executive, legislators and the comptroller from holding the same office 12 years “in a lifetime.” Their bill is now in committee.
A pamphlet titled “History of County Term Limits” published by the National Association of Counties (which is online) starts by noting, “The Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first societies to implement term limits. They believed that a change of leadership periodically was good for government.” But it was only in the 1990s that “the demand for term limits started to spread in the United States.”
On the federal level, the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1951 limiting the U.S. president to two four-year terms. This, says the National Constitution Center in its online explanation, began with a push by “a Republican-controlled Congress…after Franklin Roosevelt won four consecutive terms in the White House.” Still, there are no term limits for members of Congress or, in New York, for elected officeholders in state government.
There’s debate over term limits. A piece published by the Brookings Institution, “Five Reasons to Oppose Congressional Term Limits,” says one reason would be “large swaths of lawmakers forfeiting their hard-earned experience while simultaneously requiring that freshman members make up for the training and legislative acumen that was just forced out of the door.” Yet, as the National Association of Counties relates, in the 1990s as “discontent spread” about elected officials, many in the U.S. “began to feel that new ideas and fresh leadership on a periodic basis was a desirable aim.”
That debate came to Suffolk in 1993. The late Legislator Herb Davis (R-Yaphank) whose bill on term limits was passed by the legislature 14-3, argued that with term limits “the voters get some fresh faces after a certain number of years.” The Davis measure was approved “overwhelmingly” by Suffolk voters in a referendum later in 1993, points out the former counsel to the legislature, Paul Sabatino II, a Huntington Station lawyer, who drafted the Davis bill. He commented last week: “The voters love term limits. The establishment hates them.”
Still, what about elected officials who are basically irreplaceable? Here, in Suffolk, as an example, there is Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, a champion of open space and farmland preservation, former president of the Southold Trustees, a position in which he gained extensive experience in shoreline issues—with climate change more critical than ever—and he was a member of the Southold Town Board. He’s a few years away from his term limit, but how can he be replaced?