The year was 1991. Kathy Whitmire had completed 10-years as mayor and some council members served even longer without interruption. But in a referendum, almost 60-percent of voters approved term limits for Houston,
that went into effect in 1993. Fast forward to 2010, and voters may soon be asked to change the 17 year system. According to new poll conducted by Rice University and its Center for Civic Engagement, Houstonians support term limits, but are willing to change the length of those limits.
"We're interested in finding out what they like about one type of term limit over another."
That's Rice University Political Science Professor Bob Stein, who oversaw the poll conducted in the Spring. He says there's a trade-off between the number of terms someone is allowed to serve and the length of those terms.
"It appears that the voters want it both ways. They want experience. They want someone to start and finish their business. They don't want to have a lot of elections and have the candidates raise money, and it looks the two four years is the one that the voters seem to prefer."
After initial questions on their support for term limits, Stein says poll respondents were presented with arguments for and against term limits, and the power and influence lobbyists and special interests might have at city hall as a result.
"What's interesting is they also like the idea of people sitting out and then coming back in. So, this argument about experience; although they're afraid possibly that candidates will be too — how should we say — comfortable, they don't oppose the idea of sitting out a term and then coming back in."
The poll of 501 registered voters, was conducted for the City's Term Limits Review Commission, which was authorized by outgoing Mayor Bill White. He named former Metro boss Arthur Schechter as commission chairman.
"Since we had term limits in place in Houston, we've had great increases among minority populations, but we discovered that essentially that was true in every other major city in the United States, with or without term limits."
The Commission is to report to the mayor & council with recommendations sometime next month. Houston At-large councilmber Sue Lovell says she's anxious to see the report.
"I do think eight years is enough time to finish the project that you would like to and have and impact. But also after that, I think that you might get a little stale, and I think it's good to have new energy and new people on council."
It was Clymer Wright's petition drive in 1991 that led to term limits. He doesn't think creating a commission to call for a referendum to change term limits will succeed.
"And I think what we have is fine. I think the people are gonna agree with me on that. If the council does put it on the ballot, I think we're gonna see an overwhelming victory for the current term limits program in November."
You can see results of the poll at http://www.houstontx.gov/termlimits/.