Voters in Yonkers recently banded together to form a committee to petition for a referendum on term limits. The plainly named, “Yonkers Voters for Term Limits,” intends to collect the thousands of signatures as required by law to force a referendum on this year’s general election ballot. The referendum will roll back the maximum number of terms an elected officer can serve from four four-year terms to three terms. This 12 total years aligns with the Westchester County legislators’ term limit.
In November 2022, the Yonkers City Council amended the charter to extend term limits for themselves and the mayor. This self-serving change was met with resistance from many community groups. And, subsequently a lawsuit was brought against the city to contest this amendment. While there are no rulings on that lawsuit to-date, this other set of aggrieved voters wish to challenge the term limits extension directly at the ballot box. The lawsuit and referendum exist on parallel tracks, but those tracks may eventually intersect.
Comprising this newly formed committee are residents from all across Yonkers. Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters are steering and supporting this cause. Notable committee members include Phil Zisman and John Murtagh. Zisman was the former Inspector General for the City of Yonkers. And Murtagh was a Republican City Council member and Mayoral candidate. In a formal letter drafted by the committee, it lays out a simple premise:
“We believe that only the people should decide the structure of our government, and not the politicians who are currently in office.”
The New York State Municipal Home Rule Law lays out the procedure by which voters can compel their own ballot referendum. While not an easy process by design, this committee has a plan. By working in coordination with the candidate petitioning process, they will collect the requisite number of signatures. The law states that 10% of the last gubernatorial election voter population must sign the petition. So, that is approximately 4,800 signatures. Ergo, roughly five thousand signatures on this petition will start the process to put term limits back on the ballot. Many candidates petitioning for their own names on the ballot will carry this referendum petition as well. With Margaret Coleman, Corazon Pineda, and Anthony Merante all supporting this cause, the goal of 5,000 signatures is possible.
The collected signatures are then formally delivered to the City Clerk‘s office for inspection. If validated, they are ultimately transmitted to the City Council. The council can then vote to approve the referendum and place it on the ballot. During the debate on term limits last year, some pro-extension members did concede to allowing a referendum in the future. So, this petition may put them on the spot on this issue. Though, even if the council rejects or abstains from voting on the matter, there is a backup plan. Instead of the initial 10% of voters’ signatures, the law allows a subsequent petition of just 5% of voters that can also be submitted. So, 2,500 different signatures from people who were registered to vote can force this referendum despite the Clerk or Council’s objection.
Who is at risk?
Assuming this term limits referendum does reach the general election ballot, a paradox could be created. Two potential general election candidates are Mayor Mike Spano and Council Member Mike Breen. Both are currently serving their third-and formerly final-term. If this referendum reaches the general election ballot and passes, and either candidate also wins their re-election, then they would be prevented from assuming that office in January 2024. This would presumably trigger the vacancies clause in New York State election law. If so, a replacement candidate from the party would assume the office.
The stakes are very high with this petition. If the desire to roll back term limits to the countywide norm of 12 years is adopted, then that would mean disaster for at least two candidates running for office this cycle. If nothing else, we have seen in our recent polling that many voters in Yonkers do want to make this choice for themselves. Whether or not they choose 12 or 16 years will be the question potentially put forth to them in November.