Thursday, February 28, 2008

When is a Term not a Term?

Thursday, February 28, 2008, 10:34pm
The ADN says that Dr. Peter Mjos is challenging the City Clerk's decision to let Dick Traini run for a fourth term because the charter says you can only serve for three consecutive terms. The City Clerk's decision is based on an opinion written by a hired attorney. The attorney concludes that partial terms were not intended to be counted in the term limit provision and since Traini's first term here (he had served prior to that and then was defeated by then future mayor George Weurch if I recall correctly.) There's lots here to chew on.

1. The political consequences of this lawsuit for this race and the next mayoral race
2. How good is the opinion of the hired attorney?

1. Political Consequences

1. For this race. If I understand it right, there are only two candidates. If Traini were deemed ineligible to run, then his opponent Elvi Gray would win. But it also seems to me problematic to have a candidate yanked off the ballot by the courts and for the voters to not have a choice. This could cause a backlash. What if the courts don't finish by election day, and Traini wins. Then the court says he shouldn't have run? The people voted for the term limit provision, but they also would have voted for Traini despite the term limit provision. They would be saying with their votes that the term limit provision doesn't include partial terms.
2. For the upcoming mayoral race. If, in fact, Mark Begich runs for the US Senate, (and that has gotten more likely while I was writing this) and gets elected, a big 'if', he would leave his mayoral position several months before the next mayoral election. If I remember right, the Assembly chair would become acting Mayor. It seems to me better to decide this issue now in an Assembly election than to have it still an open issue if we have a partial term mayor running.

On the one hand, if the law is ambiguous - and if it weren’t the City Clerk would not have asked for an opinion - it should be clarified. But ideally the timing for the clarification should be such that if a candidate is eliminated, others can run for that office. Levesque’s opinion is dated January 7, 2008. I don’t know when the Clerk made her decision or when it was made public - before or after the closing date for candidates to file. To that we must add the time it would take a citizen to decide to file a law suit, since that isn't a casual decision.

On the other hand, are the additional few months Traini served worth depriving his constituents a choice in the election? Shouldn't there be another way to challenge the meaning of the law so it could be done between elections when it doesn’t have immediate consequences on specific people and specific political races?

Does the motivation of the person filing - for political reasons or to clarify the law on principle - matter? Can we ever know the real motivations? Could it be a mix of both? If it is for political gain - to Elvi Jackson’s advantage if Traini were to be found ineligible - one could also say that Traini pushed the limits by running for a fourth term when there was a three year term limit. (He's not the first according to Levesque's analysis - Ossiander did it on the School Board and Daniel Kendall did it on the Assembly. That doesn't make it right, it just means no one challenged them.) Even if the ruling is technically in his favor, it would seem to violate the spirit of the charter. While an attorney’s opinion went in his favor, only a judge’s opinion or a charter amendment could - as I understand it - be legally binding.

2. Levesque's Opinion

Joseph N. Levesque, the attorney who wrote the opinion for the City Clerk concluded
A review of the language used in the MOA Charter term limit provisions reveals that the term limits for elected offices are for either two full consecutive three-year terms or three full consecutive three-year terms. The meaning of the language is clear and unambiguous, partial time served through either appointment or election does not count for the purpose of counting terms. Both the available legislation history and established precedent support this conclusion.
To write that the language is clear and unambiguous seems to suggest that his client, the City Clerk, is a little dim. If it's so clear and unambiguous, why does she have to hire an attorney to tell her that? But an attorney once told me that if he wrote an opinion, it would be a strong, firm opinion, whichever side of the issue he took. So maybe this just reflects that, once Levesque decided it should go for Traini's position, he went for it strong.

How does Levesque reach that conclusion? Partly by logic and partly by referring to the legislative history and intent. The logic doesn't work for me at all. The history and intent - at least the part he refers us to - is more supportive.

The "Logic"

I'll comment on a few things he writes, the whole opinion is here.

Quote 1: (Levesque cites McQuillin whom he describes as "a legal authority on municipal law")
Although an unambiguous statute prescribing the term of an officer will be construed as written, where the legal provisions prescribing the term is [sic] uncertain or doubtful an interpretation will be adopted that limits the term to the shortest time. (p. 2)
So if the Municipal Charter isn't clear on this, we should adopt an interpretation that limits the term to the shortest time possible. That would mean, not allowing someone to run for a fourth consecutive term even if one term was only a partial term. But Levesque comes to the opposite conclusion quoting McQuillin again as saying "the phrase 'term of office'... means the fixed legal period during which the incumbent may legally hold the office."

Do you think the Charter Commission that wrote this language read McQuillin and knew that this was 'the' definition of 'term'? Levesque's opinion talks about 'terms,' 'full terms,' and 'partial terms." Each one uses the word 'term.' But let's move on.

Quote 2: Here Levesque is citing a case called Pope.
"No person shall be elected as a member of the city council for more than two four-year terms..." According to the courts [sic] reasoning, the words 'elect' and 'appointed' have different meanings and a 'four-year term' is not the same as a 17-month term. (pp. 2-3)
But in the Pope case the law specifically said 'elected' and in the Anchorage charter, the word is NOT 'elected' it's 'served.' "[a] person who has served on the assembly for three consecutive terms may not be reelected to the assembly until one full term has intervened."

Note: it says "three consecutive terms" (not full terms) but it also says, "until one full term has intervened." So when they were writing this, they were aware of the difference between full and not full terms. When they wrote about how many consecutive terms someone could serve, they didn't use the word full. But they did use it when they wrote about how much time must intervene before one can be reelected. I would guess this is the precise language on which Mjos is basing his challenge.

Quote 3 - I include this under logic rather than intent, because it is so logically flawed.
Morever, if the intent was for the term limits to include partial terms then language addressing partial terms would have been included. (p. 5)
Don't buy a used car from this guy. You could just as easily make the opposite argument: "If the intent was for the term limits to only be full terms, then language addressing full terms would have been included." This is pure sophistry. And since they did, as I pointed out just above, include 'full term' when talking about how long one had to wait before being elected again, one could logically imagine that they didn't intend the consecutive terms to be full terms or they would have said so.

Since Levesque himself uses the term ‘partial term’ and the charter talks about ‘three year term[s]’ and “two year term[s]” (for mayor), it would seem that the word ‘term’ means time spent serving as assembly member, however long that turns out to be. There could be partial terms, two year terms and three year terms, but all are ‘terms.’ Thus a partial term is a term. The charter prohibits three consecutive terms.

Legislative History and Intent

Levesque cites the original Charter Committee Report #4 and the Charter Review Commission Report to get to the intent of the ordinance. This is after citing legal precedence that legal intent trumps the literal meaning of the law.

He has two citations that logically support his position that one has to serve consecutive FULL terms before term limits apply. (Or should I say "full term" limits apply?)

Intent Quote 1: On page 6 of Levesque's opinion, he cites Committee Report #4:
The charter will limit the Mayor to two successive full terms. A policy question for the Commission is whether a limit on successive terms of Assembly members should be imposed...
He has already decided that what applies to the Mayor regarding full or partial also applies to the Assembly (and School Board) and that from this it means the Commission clearly intended it to mean full terms.

My problems with this are:

1. This is plucked out of Report #4. I'd have to know how many reports there were and what they said (did a Report #6 change its mind?) and read the context of this quote to be sure it means what he says it means. And given some of the other stuff he's written here, I'm not inclined to do that without checking.
2. If the Commission discussed full terms and partial terms and were conscious of this distinction, why, in the end, didn't they say 'full term' when they wrote the Charter? Perhaps at the end, they voted to strike the term 'full.' Of course, I'm playing devil's advocate here. The rest of the context may well support his contention.

Intent Quote 2: On page 8 Levesque writes:
The Charter Review Commission recommended that the term limit provisions be evaluated and voted on by the public, but that any adopted term limits be applied prospectively allowing any incumbent eligibility "to run for two additional full terms."
From this he concludes that they meant (for the Assembly) consecutive 'full' terms. I didn't know you could run for partial terms. And this is talking about what the limbo Assembly members (those serving when the rules were being changed) could do.

It's possible the Charter members did mean what Levesque says the meant, but it isn't possible logically, from these scraps of evidence to jump to the conclusion that Levesque presents:
A review of the language used in the MOA Charter term limit provisions reveals that the term limits for electd offices are for either two full consecutive three-year terms or three full consecutive three-year terms. The meaning of the language is clear and unambiguous, partial time served through either appointment or election does not count for the purpose of counting terms. Both the available legislation history and established precedent support this conclusion.

Personal Note

Anchorage is a small town. Dick Traini was a student of mine and I respect him and have voted for him. But Elvi Gray's positions are closer to mine and I have contributed to her campaign. Furthermore, I know Dr. Peter Mjos and even posted a picture of him on the ski trail not too long ago. I'm also trying to balance my desire to share all I know with my obligations to respect the confidentiality of personal conversations I've had with friends. The rules about sources are being debated for professional journalists, and as a citizen blogger, the trust of my friends and family trumps my obligations to my readers. I don't want my friends to stop talking to me if they fear I'll blog it. If I can find an independent source of information, I might use that but not confidential conversations.

I also don't believe in term limits. I recognize that the system tends to favor incumbents, but term limits imply the public is too dumb to vote right and so we have to prevent them from reelecting someone. But it is the law, and we should follow the law or change it. One way to do that is to challenge it when one has legal standing to do that.

My Conlusion

My conclusion is that this is not clearcut and that a hired attorney is not how we determine law. Getting this to a judge gives us a final decision. But it is also problematic that this decision is coming so late in the game that if Traini were determined to be ineligible, another candidate could not run. I also think that things could get seriously messy if the decision is not final before the election and/or Traini should win and then be declared ineligible. It would put a cloud over Elvi Gray if she got elected that way. It would be better for her to ask the voters, as part of her campaign, to show the meaning of the term limits by voting for her and not voting for a candidate who, if elected, could serve more than nine consecutive years, which would seem against the intent of the term limits.

But I think it will be messier if this issue is not resolved before the next mayoral election when there could potentially be a candidate running who will have served a partial term. If reelected, would that person be able to run for a third consecutive term? (Mayor is limited to two terms.) We need to get this cleared up. Unfortunately, it appears that the only way to do that is to challenge a candidate who is running for a fourth term.

In in the big scheme of things, if someone can serve an extra year, even two, it probably is no big deal. But I don't think that things are nearly as unambiguous as Levesque would have us believe.

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