NEW TOWN — Clarkstown officials made history in 2014 when they became the first Rockland government to institute term limits for city council members and certain other elected officials.
Eight years later, enthusiasm for the plan has faded and city officials are considering revoking or amending the term limits law, which came into force in January 2015.
The immediate beneficiary of any removal would be supervisor George Hoehmann and another board member who cannot seek re-election in 2023 under current law. Hoehmann would not be elected. He reportedly had ambitions to run for county executive before Ed Day, an advocate for term limits, won a third term in November.
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Four board votes would be required to revoke the law, although a vote may not be required. The city examines whether the adopted law is too vague and therefore invalid. The city attorney sought the opinion of a retired Supreme Court justice, who responded in April that the law did not make sense and was ripe for revocation.
Of the five board members, four oppose term limits, mostly on the principle that voters should decide. The exception is Councilman Frank Borelli, who lobbied for the law in 2014 with Hoehmann. Borelli is also time-limited in 2023.
When the five-member board passed term limits in 2014, Democrats held a 3-to-2 majority. Today, Republicans hold a 4-to-1 majority.
“I’m also aware that there are those who think the current law has problems with its wording,” Borelli said. “I strongly disagree with any effort to replace and re-enact new law based on the wording, as the intent at the time of the vote was clear to those who voted and the public who attended the public hearing. “
Borelli said each Clarkstown elected official, excluding judges, was limited to eight consecutive years in the same office. He said he would not support a board vote on revoking or changing the law.
“I would vote no on any resolution trying to claim the law is poorly worded,” Borelli said.
Clarkstown City Attorney Craig Johns, a former Republican judge for decades, said the law is being reviewed. He declined to comment on the vagueness issue. Hoehmann, the first supervisor elected in 2015 after serving on the board from 2009, also declined to comment.
A retired judge analyzes the law on term limits
Johns had sought an opinion on the law from retired state Supreme Court Justice William Sherwood, according to a ruling by the judge in Johns.
In his April 9 response letter to Johns, Sherwood wrote that the city law did not make sense as written. He said that under state and local laws, most terms are limited to 2 or 4 years before running for office.
“The intent of the law may have been to limit the number of consecutive years an elected official could serve in office to just eight years,” Sherwood wrote. “Instead, in plain language, it says no term can exceed eight years.”
He said nothing in city code prohibits elected officials from serving consecutive terms totaling more than eight consecutive years.
“In my opinion, the city code provision does not make sense and should be treated as such,” Sherwood wrote, adding that any legislation on the matter should appeal or amend the code.
Council members say the law is clear
Council member Patrick Carroll, a lawyer, disagrees with Sherwood’s analysis. Carroll was not a board member in 2014. Although he opposes revocation of the law, he does not support term limits, especially since removal would immediately affect Hoehmann and Borelli. He and council members Michael Graziano and Donald Francino argue that voters should decide.
“With regard to a legal opinion that has been issued that concludes that the Term Limits Act is vague, I do not give that opinion much weight because it goes against the fundamental principles of the legal interpretation,” Carroll said.
Carroll said when determining the meaning of a law, “one is supposed to read the language of the law on its face and if it is vague, then look at the legislative intent.”
“First, the law is not vague and second, the council’s intent, captured in its (September 9, 2014) minutes, is clear,” he said. “The board has sought to limit the consecutive term of an elected official to eight years.”
Carroll also questioned the timing of obtaining an opinion from Sherwood “because this problem was not discovered in the first, second, third, etc. year after implementation, but only appeared during the year, even on the eve of reaching the limit”.
Graziano and Francino have said they oppose term limits. Graziano noted that Clarkstown is the only town in Rockland that has boundaries. He said if the council votes to overturn or change the law, the city’s votes should decide in a public referendum.
“I really believe it’s the will of the people to elect someone if the incumbent doesn’t do a good job,” he said. “If the subject of a mandate comes up and a 4-1 or 5-0 vote is cast in council, it should be put to a public referendum.”
The revoking of term limits drew a fiery response from three Democrats who backed the limits as board members in 2014.
In a letter to council, Shirley Lasker, Stephanie Hauser and then-supervisor Alexander Gromack noted that the concept of term limits had popular support among many residents at the time. Borelli said the three Democrats’ support in 2014 was political and happened in an election year.
City Republicans assembled a petition with more than 3,400 signatures at the time for term limits and the law was approved after several rowdy meetings, they said.
In their letter, they noted that Hoehmann was quoted in The Journal News as saying, “I understand as a two-term incumbent adviser, like any incumbent, that I have a clear advantage over any challenger. Term limits are a way to ensure that periodically people have the same playing field with guaranteed turnover.”
The trio questioned why Hoehmann would want to overturn a law he championed and insisted it was fair.
“We ask that you keep your word and not rescind or come up with some fabricated reason to claim now, eight years later, that this is not valid law,” their letter reads. “You and we all know that is the case.”
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