Opinion: Councilwoman Coonrod floats idea for term limits for mayor and council members

Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod has floated an idea about term limits for the Chattanooga mayor and City Council members and a change in city election dates.

Chattanooga Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod is proposing an ordinance that would make changes to the city charter, including how long the mayor and council members can serve and when city elections are held.

Some may dismiss it as much ado about nothing, but we hope her proposals at least get a fair hearing.

Coonrod's proposal is that the mayor could serve up to four four-year terms. Council members would be limited to the same 16-year maximum over four terms.

She also would have city elections move to August to coincide with other elections. However, city elections are in odd years, so if such a proposal were adopted, current terms would either end in three years or be extended to five so they could be held in tandem with other elections.

Coonrod's reason for moving the elections is to save money. If they are held in the same year as either the August county general elections (2026, for instance) or state primaries (2024, for instance), they would not cost the city as much. She cited the 2021 city election cost of $224,487 and subsequent runoff cost of $188,741 -- roughly $413,000 total -- as money that better could be spent elsewhere.

We have no doubt the proposal would save money, but our concern is that a city ballot together with a county general election ballot or a state primary ballot would give voters already less inclined today to study their choices even more names to deal with.

The 2021 city election ballot had 36 names, including 15 running for mayor. The August 2022 general election ballot -- in an election where many offices were uncontested -- had well over 100 names, including candidates in county municipalities and judges in various local and state courts. Imagine a ballot with 150 to 200 names.

The current off-year election schedule for the city, to us, allows more focus on the candidates. We understand Coonrod's idea about saving money, but we'd like to see it stay as it is.

Current council member Jenny Hill of District 2 previously has expressed her opposition to such a proposal, telling members that the "city elections create their own, separate conversation away from the noise of partisan blather. Candidates are motivated to work just as diligently to earn votes -- and they have an opportunity to do so based on their ideas, record, relationships and work ethic."

As to the terms for Chattanooga mayor and council members, we think it's worth a conversation.

Since the city adopted the mayor/council form of government in 1989, only Gene Roberts (1983-1997) has served more than two terms as mayor. Roberts actually served more than four terms, though the first seven years were under the city's former mayor/commission form of government.

We think four terms may be too long for one person at the helm of a city. Three terms might be a good compromise to consider to the current two.

Office-holders (see Congress) often get too comfortable in their position and feel less beholden to their constituents the longer they're in office. They take their re-elections for granted and are less open to new ideas.

Since the city changed to its current form of government, four people have been elected to four or more commission terms: John Lively in District 1 (four terms), Carol Berz in District 6 (four terms), Leamon Pierce in District 8 (five terms) and Yusuf Hakeem in District 9 (six terms). Berz is the only one of those four still serving.

Interestingly, Lively, Pierce and Hakeem all were defeated in trying for one additional term.

Nine other people have been elected to three terms, and two of those were defeated in an attempt for a fourth term. Two of those nine, Chip Henderson in District 1 and Ken Smith in District 3, are still serving.

It's unclear whether Coonrod is targeting Berz with her proposal, but Berz has been elected without opposition for her last three terms.

Current council member Raquetta Dotley of District 7 previously vocalized support for term limits, saying "it is critical that there are limitations placed on how long a person can be in office. When public officials are in office for too long, stagnation can be mistaken for sustainability and complacency for progress. Being a career politician should not be the goal of a City Council member, but rather reflecting the voices of the community in policy."

Whenever Coonrod submits her proposal, we hope the City Council will have a spirited debate on term limits, how they would affect or not affect constituents, and whether a turnover in office-holders would produce better and more creative ideas for the city.

If the proposal is eventually submitted, our bet is that council members will not vote to change the current structure. But we've been surprised before.