Oak Lawn’s new mayor is determined to implement term limits for elected village officials, the parameters of which she envisions will be established by the recently created legislative and ethics committee.
Sandra Bury, who was elected mayor in April and took her oath of office May 14, said last week she is “very committed” to setting term limits in Oak Lawn. The legislative license and ethics committee will recommend what the term limits should be, and village trustees will based on the recommendation determine whether to place the item as a referendum on next March’s election ballot, according to village attorneys.
Bury believes term limits would keep the Village Board “fresh.”
“New people bring in new ideas,” she said. “When village trustees know they have a time frame, then they know they have four years or eight years or a certain amount of time to get things done. Without term limits, we have people who have been in office for so long, they either sit there and do nothing, or work the system so well that there is a potential for conduct that is inappropriate and can take advantage of their position.”
While a large percentage of citizens generally support term limits at the local level of government, the concept is not exactly popular among elected officials and term limits have rarely been established in Illinois. Opponents of term limits often believe elections themselves regulate how long one serves in office, while many proponents believe termless offices open the door to government officials abusing the system and wielding excessive power.
“People say, ‘we already have term limits, it’s called voting,’ but voter turnout is incredibly low,” Bury said.
Voter turnout for the April mayoral election in Oak Lawn was 29.6 percent.
Only five Illinois municipalities, none in the southwest suburbs, have term limits for mayor and board/council members. Tinley Park voters last November passed a referendum asking whether the Village Board should establish term limits for elected officials, and the village has formed a seven-member Term Limits Committee that is investigating whether term limits at the local level of government prove beneficial or detrimental to communities.
Oak Lawn Trustee Alex Olejniczak, a political ally of Bury’s who ran on her Oak Lawn First Party ticket in April, believes term limits will help the village. Olejniczak was re-elected last month to a third term in office, and believes three terms is a reasonable limit.
“What we have seen in the history of Oak Lawn is people that have been in their positions for too long of a period of time,” Olejniczak said. “This causes complacency and intimidates other candidates who want to go out there and run as a trustee. If a person has been in there that long, they have a lot of connections and people that they rely upon.
“Anytime a village can get more people involved and give them opportunities to be involved in the community. Anytime we can bring in new ideas and new ways to look at thing in any form of government, that’s a good thing.”
An elected official’s first term I office is a learning experience in which the person is “learning how to get things done,” according to Olejniczak.
“In the second term, they start being able to get things done,” he continued. “ I’ve been working on the Central [Avenue] and Southwest Highway [left] turning lane since I was elected, and in my third term we are finally getting out of engineering and into actual development. By the time I finish my third term, it’ll be done.”
Worth resident Kevin Werner served two terms as a village trustee and decided against running for a third term because his belief in term limits. He commended Bury for starting conversations about term limits.
“Hats off to her,” Werner said. “I can’t wait to see people honor term limits. It gives me hope for the future.”
Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki opposes term limits. Zabrocki was first elected mayor in 1981, at the tail end of an era that saw mayors in Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge, Worth and Palos Hills get elected to what would be a collective 144 years in office. Zabrocki was elected in April to his ninth term, securing more than 62 percent of the vote to top challenger Steve Eberhardt. It was a group led by Eberhardt that spearheaded the campaign to place the referendum question on the November ballot.
“Obviously, I’m not for term limits,” Zabrocki said. “Every two years, half the village board is up and I am up every four years, so people have opportunity to vote you in or out. I don’t think term limits are necessary. People chose to put me in office that long.”
Zabrocki has done good things for Tinley Park, and that is why people have reelected him, he said. Since his first election in 1981, the Village Board has operated on a balanced budget, was rated the best place to raise kids in the country in 2010, and has not laid off any village employees during the recession, he said.
“If people want to vote you out, every four years they have that opportunity,” Zabrocki said. “Term limits are artificial.”
Werner said unseating an incumbent government officials can be nearly impossible.
“They have the power of the incumbency, which is the power to raise the most money so they can keep their seat,” Werner said. “[Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel beat people who were more qualified than him, just because he had the most money. The power of the incumbent is too strong for most well-meaning public servants to overcome.
“Every so often, someone will come up and upset the incumbent, which is what just happened in Oak Lawn and Worth. I don’t think the incumbents thought they would lose, but they lost to well-meaning people who fought an uphill battle and unseated them.”
Werner is a proponent of term limits at all levels of government, though he believes reasonable concessions can be made at the local level. In the Unites States, the president’s office is the only elected seat with a term limit. Illinois state offices do not carry term limits, but political fundraising and lobbying would be inhibited if they did, Werner believes.
“Politics is dirty, and if we had term limits, it would take at least some of the dirt out of it,” Werner said. “It would eliminate the need for fundraising to the degree that it has gone to. The money that is being spent by politicians to get re-elected is stunning.
“Who has access to politicians? The people who are funding elections. If they donate money to Mike Madigan or Pat Quinn, they are buying access. If that politician is term-limited, they don’t need that access.”
Lobbying would also be less effective, he said.
“People would be in politics to do the right thing, not to do what lobbyists want,” Werner said. “If I were king of the world, I would say no more than three terms or 12 years in office. If it is longer than 12 years, people are in it for money and power, not because they want to do the right thing. Some politicians hang onto jobs like they’re hanging onto their lives and do everything to keep the challengers at bay.”
Some elected officials in small towns like Worth do the job because no one else is willing to do it, Werner said.
“At the school or park board level, they don’t even get paid,” Werner said. “I would be more persuaded to soften my position on term limits at the local level rather than the county, state, or federal level. But if you are in it for the right reasons, you should not have to serve more than 12 years. You should be able to step aside and let someone else do it.”
Werner believes municipal governments should at the very least eliminate pensions for elected officials.
“As an elected official in the village of Worth, after a certain amount of years, you qualify for a pension, Werner said. “I think that’s horrible. What do local officials do to deserve a pension? They go to two little meetings a month. When I was a trustee and I rejected [getting a pension], other trustees looked at me like I had a tree growing out of my head.
“I don’t believe any politician at any level deserves a pension at any time. Eliminate pensions, and I think you would do an awful lot to institute term limits.”