St. Tammany Parish voters gave a decisive thumbs-up Saturday to term limits for the Parish Council’s 14 members, making the change one of only two home rule charter amendments to be adopted in recent elections.
The three-term limit for council members won with 83 percent of the vote, a margin of victory that began when the early votes were counted. The measure garnered 33,132 votes in favor, with 6,565 against.
Parish voters nearly didn’t get the opportunity to weigh in on the question. A home rule charter committee that was created last year had recommended that the Parish Council present three options to voters: no term limits, a three-term limit and a three-term limit with a reconfigured council consisting of 12 district representatives and two at-large, instead of all district members.
The council decided instead not to put any term limits measure on the November ballot. Council members argued that voters have the opportunity to limit anyone’s term every four years by voting them out of office. Officials also pointed to turnover on the council as evidence that the current system was not resulting in entrenched incumbents.
But public pressure continued to mount, including criticism from the St. Tammany Chamber West. Parish Council members, facing re-election, eventually relented, bringing the matter up for another vote. But the change of heart did not come soon enough to get the measure on the November ballot.
The nine charter amendments that were on the fall ballot all were thrashed at the polls, except for one that limits members of the public who want to speak at council meetings to discussing only items on the agenda.
The easy passage of term limits Saturday falls into line with what St. Tammany voters have done in the past. Covington, Mandeville and Slidell have two-term limits for their mayors and city council members. When term limits for school board members appeared on local ballots all over the state, St. Tammany voters gave the measure its highest percentage in any parish. That also was a three-term limit.
But at least one group that has been an outspoken advocate of term limits was watching another number in the returns: the undercount.
Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which has long called for term limits, came out in opposition to the version on this ballot, arguing that it was little more than a sham.
Rick Franzo, president of the group, said members should go to the polls but skip voting on the charter amendment as a form of protest, noting that such an “undercount” is quantifiable.
Concerned Citizens wanted a two-term limit and also was unhappy that the clock won’t start ticking until the 2020 election and terms served before then won’t count against the limit.
In a news release sent out last week, Franzo said the Parish Council had structured the choice presented to voters in a way that protected the self-interest of its members.
“Their scheme is a ruse, or trick, to perpetuate their incumbency until at least the year 2032, regardless of the vote,” he said.
Even if the possible undercount does show some dissatisfaction with the choices, it wasn’t enough to turn off voters. The lopsided margin of victory, coupled with good voter turnout, indicates that the three-term limit was enough to satisfy St. Tammany’s appetite for term limits.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.