Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla, who is in the middle of his second and theoretically final four-year term, recently raised the idea of asking voters to extend term limits for the commissioners. The board voted unanimously on April 15 to authorize the drafting of a ballot measure that would allow commissioners to serve three consecutive terms, but at their next meeting they held off on taking a formal vote to put it on the ballot. Instead, they said they will wait for more public input before making a final decision.
We at the Four Corners Free Press tend to oppose term limits on general principle because, in theory at least, an informed electorate can always impose its own term limits on any elected official.
The reality, however, is a little different.
First off, a good chunk of the electorate in any location is not particularly well-informed. Those who aren’t informed tend to vote (assuming they vote at all) for familiar names or for the initials R or D on a ballot.
Furthermore, running for office – even for county commissioner – can be a very expensive proposition. That’s one reason that, over the years, the Montezuma County commissioners have tended to be individuals who were fairly well-to-do even before they got into office. Add to that four or eight years pulling down an annual salary that is now about $60,000 a year (set by state statute), and they’ve positioned themselves to outspend most any opponent who might want to challenge them. And don’t forget the commissioners also have a $34,000-a-year dues, training and travel budget that enables them to go around the state and country, thus increasing their name recognition. All of that combines to make incumbency a major advantage. Don’t believe it? Try to remember the last time an incumbent Montezuma County commissioner was denied a second term by a vote of the people.
The fact that there were four candidates running for a single commission seat in the most recent election was largely due to the fact that there was no incumbent on the ballot.
In arguing for allowing commissioners to serve three terms in office, Suckla made the point that it takes time for them to make contacts that presumably help them to do their job better. The board also commented that letting commissioners have three terms would make them “consistent” with the clerk, treasurer, assessor, and sheriff, all of whom voters have already agreed to grant up to three terms. (In addition, in 2004 Montezuma County voted to eliminate term limits altogether for the county coroner.)
The flaw in that argument is that those other jobs are not policy-making or political in nature, in contrast to the commissioners’ job, and they require a special skill set. A good clerk needs to know how to run a clerk and recorder’s office, a good assessor understands tax assessment, a good sheriff needs both administrative and law-enforcement skills to oversee a large, complicated operation. Commissioners, on the other hand, can be anyone. Ideally, they have ample administrative and budget expertise, but many do not, at least not when first elected.
And while it can be difficult to find local people qualified for positions such as assessor or district attorney – and interested in running, given that they can make more money in the private sector – there is no shortage of conservative folks willing to run for commissioner, especially since the salary represents a princely sum for most locals.
But some commissioners certainly may deserve more than two terms in office. The statesmanlike Tom Colbert served three terms back before state voters passed the two-term rule in 1994, and there are others who may merit a longer stay.
Term-limit questions tend to be referenda on the popularity of whichever officials are currently in office. That’s unfortunate, because the question really deserves to be decided on its merits regardless of who the sitting officeholder might be. So if you believe county commissioners should be able to serve more than two terms, urge the current board to put the question on the 2019 ballot, and then vote in favor of the measure. In other words, don’t support the measure simply because you like Larry Don, as an example, and likewise don’t shoot it down just because you don’t like him. Cast your vote while thinking about the long term, because the decision will apply to future boards, not just this one.