More than three quarters of Sandy Springs residents surveyed want to see term limits for the mayor and city council, but report the city is sending to the state Legislature for possible charter changes won’t include a recommendation for term limits.
The survey, conducted by Sandy Springs Together from April 22 through May 20 via Facebook and email, drew comments from more than 400 residents and was presented to the Sandy Springs Charter Commission at its May 20 meeting. It stated 85% of respondents want to see term limits for city council members (three terms) and the mayor (two terms), which currently have none.
Tochie Blad, vice chair of the commission, which has met nine times since February to look at possible changes to the city’s charter, said she believes in term limits.
“I feel like Sandy Springs has a lot of vibrant people that want to run for office, and giving them an opportunity to serve would be an asset to the community. The power of the incumbency is always there, and it would be helpful to allow people to take a step down,” Blad said, adding a term-limited mayor or council member could always run for office again four years after departing.
“… Also, the survey … was the people speaking for this (issue). It was incredibly difficult coming out of the (COVID-19) pandemic to get meaningful public opinion. The survey is what a lot of us were basing our votes on.”
Blad talked about the topic in an interview with the Neighbor following the commission’s final meeting July 1. At its June 3 meeting, the group’s two votes on term limits failed, and the commission did not take up the matter again for a vote at its final meeting. The mayor’s term limit vote was denied 5-5 and the council’s term limit vote failed 6-4.
In the mayor’s term limit vote, Commissioners Blad, Chip Collins, Tricia Gephardt, Melody Kelley and Suleima Millan-Salimas supported it, and Commissioners Gabriel Sterling (chair), Ronda Smith, Sunny Park, Tom Mahaffey and Andrea Settles opposed it. In the council’s term limit vote, Blad, Gephardt, Kelley and Millan-Salimas favored it, and Sterling, Collins, Smith, Park, Mahaffey and Settles dissented.
Sterling, who served as the council’s District 4 member from 2011 to 2017 before running for Fulton County Board of Commissioners chair, said term limits are unnecessary.
“I think term limits are an elitist scheme: ‘We don’t like your choices so we’re going to limit your choices,’” he said of elitists’ thinking. “I think voters are smart and they have the opportunity essentially at the local level to interact and deal with their mayors (and) councils (directly). It’s very different (at) the federal level with presidential and Congressional candidates. They are so far removed from the voters.”
While term limits may be a hot topic, they are just one of several issues the commission tackled this year. The group meets only roughly once every decade (the last time the commission was formed and met was in 2010, about four years after the city incorporated), and there are already plans to meet again starting in 2030 (a large majority of survey respondents believe the city should review the charter more frequently than every 11 years).
Also, the commission approved, by a 9-1 vote, its final report, which included several recommendations, with Blad dissenting. One was for the mayor and council members’ salaries to increase from $40,000 and $18,000, respectively, to $50,000 and $25,000. Even if the Legislature does not adopt this change as it approves the amended charter, the council can vote for mayor and council raises.
Another issue included in the report was a change to how the charter deals with special elections for mayoral/council seats that may open unexpectedly at a bad time. This amendment addressed the issue that arose in March 2016, when District 3 Councilman Graham McDonald resigned with nearly two years before his term was to end to run for a Georgia House of Representatives seat.
Due to the timing of his resignation, the May 2016 primary election included a special election where residents of District 3 had to vote not only in their own poll location for all the primary seats but also at Hammond Park for the District 3 post. The secretary of state’s office investigated the special election, but the city was cleared of any wrongdoing. Instead, Fulton County was implicated for not mailing precinct cards to voters to notify them of the Hammond Park poll change.
Under the recommended change to the charter, the city would hold a special election at the next possible date when it could take place, preferably timed with another regular election. But if that special election would take place several months later, the city could appoint an interim council member to temporarily represent that seat. Sterling said he felt this change to the charter was the most important one because it righted a wrong.
“(Appointing an interim council member) stops people from being disenfranchised because people voted in that primary,” he said. “This is about keeping people enfranchised and allowing for representation in the meantime.”
The commission’s proposed amendments to the charter will be discussed but not voted on by the council as early as its next meeting July 20. The council’s comments will be included in the documents sent with the report to the Legislature.
From there, the state’s lawmakers could adopt all, some or none of the commission’s recommendations in the process approving Sandy Springs’ charter. Sterling said only one change was approved by the General Assembly after the commission sent its final report to the state after meeting in 2010, so that could happen again with this cycle.
“I was proud to be a part of this process where we had a lot of input and a lot of public debate and we had a lot of opportunities for public comment,” he said.