Sad or great day for democracy?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2008, 12:00am

New York

Last Thursday was a chilly autumn day, but the chamber room of New York's City Hall reached boiling point. Poker-faced politicians scrambled into their seats, zealous activists held up signs with slogans and an unprecedented number of security guards sternly watched every coming and going. The city council was set to start a vote to decide whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg could get the chance to serve four more years in office.

By the time they arrived, most councillors and members of the public had a clear idea about which side they would take. But Len Quash was not one of them.

Mr Quash sat quietly. The Trinidad immigrant and retired worker from Domino Sugar had read a lot about the controversy caused by the mayor's plan to amend the term-limits law to allow him to campaign for a third four-year term.

But 'I still don't know what's going on', Mr Quash said. 'So I come here today just to see what's taking place.'

What took place was clear: an amendment proposed by three council members that aimed to put the whole question to a referendum of the city's voters failed. The term-limits extension bill proposed by the mayor passed, both by narrow margins.

But the scorching debate among council members before the vote didn't make Mr Quash any less confused: should council members or the public decide whether to have Mr Bloomberg on the ballot next year?

The situation was further complicated by the importance the decision had for many of the council members' own interests. Not only would 35 of the 51 council members be forced out of office next year by term limits, but some of them were aiming to campaign for vacancies created by those required to leave their positions.

With both sides trying to sell their positions under the cover of democracy, the debate sounded more like a rhetoric competition.

'Term limits came from people twice. If we do [extend term limits] without going back to people we'll send a message that their voices do not matter,' said councillor John Liu, referring to the previous referendums when New Yorkers voted to limit jobs for top public officials to a maximum of eight years in 1993 and voted to renew the law in 1996.

'We are elected by the voters to represent them. We know what's in the best interests of people,' countered councillor Oliver Koppell.

Referring to the cost of a referendum, councillor Robert Jackson said: 'If you don't want the mayor to stay, just don't vote for him. Simply end the problem and save US$15 million.' Another councillor, Rosie Mendez, borrowed a slogan from Mastercard: 'Vote on referendum: cost US$15 million. Democracy: priceless.'

Comptroller Bill Thompson, who intends to campaign for the mayor's position next year, ranted in a press conference after the vote: 'This is a sad day for New York.'

The mayor himself proclaimed: 'It is a great day for democracy.'

At the end of the day, Mr Quash looked even more confused. 'This whole debate looks very democratic itself. But if I were to vote on this, I don't know what to vote for,' he said.

'Whoever can give New Yorkers better jobs and put the kids in college should be the mayor.'

Tomorrow: London