Considering term limits for county supervisors

By Gordon Clanton

North Coastal Columnist

In June, voters will be asked to consider term limits for county supervisors.

I am generally opposed to term limits. They rob the public of expertise that comes with experience. They devalue public service, encouraging a cynical view of politics. They greatly expand the influence of corporate lobbyists. Term limits are unnecessary: If elected officials do a bad job, voters can replace them.

Legislative term limits, approved by California voters in 1990, encourage job-hopping among the politically ambitious. They create anxiety among members of Congress that termed-out state legislators will come after their jobs. Term limits are a major source of the costly dysfunction in Sacramento.

But I may make an exception to my opposition to term limits, because races against incumbent supervisors are nearly impossible to win.

Financing a challenger’s campaign is difficult, because most donors (other than developers and builders) simply do not care.

The enormous size of the districts, roughly the same as a congressional district, means a successful challenger must do lots of very expensive mail and TV advertising to create name identification. Incumbents almost always have much more money than challengers — in part because of big contributions from developers and other special interests.

Most San Diego County voters live in one of 18 incorporated cities, so they don’t think much about county government. If you ask average voters what stake they have in county services, you’ll be lucky if they come up with animal control and senior vaccinations. Try running a campaign on that platform!

The best argument for term limits for supervisors is the entrenched incumbent board. All five are white in an increasingly diverse county. All five are Republicans, although the city and now the county of San Diego have Democratic pluralities.

Predictions? Two incumbent supervisors will be re-elected, and term limits will be approved.

Ron Roberts (District 4, downtown San Diego, 16 years on the board) faced two potential challengers, Assemblywoman Lori Saldana and San Diego school board member Sheila Jackson, but both dropped out. Roberts had more than $100,000 cash on hand compared with $17,000 for Saldana. Do the math.

Bill Horn (District 5, North County, 16 years in office) has raised almost $100,000. His strongest challenger, Vista Councilman Steve Gronke, has about $2,000 on hand. Horn, long considered developer-friendly, supports the proposed Merriam Mountains development.

Even if the initiative passes, all the incumbents will be eligible for two more four-year terms. So they are more likely to be taken out by age, illness, boredom or affluence than by this ballot measure.

Gordon Clanton teaches sociology at San Diego State University. He welcomes comments at gclanton@mail.