Legislators Want To Extend Their Terms

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The Democratic majority leader of the Suffolk Legislature, Jon Cooper, is again moving to extend the terms of county legislators from two to four years.

In 2002, voters county-wide rejected a referendum on an earlier measure of Mr. Cooper’s to elect legislators to four-year terms.

Mr. Cooper said recently he wants to bring the issue back to the Suffolk Legislature and before Suffolk’s voters again. It could be on the ballot this coming November.

“Anyone who has been through this process” of being a Suffolk County legislator “knows,” said Mr. Cooper, that two-year terms mean being “focused on reelection” to the detriment of “legislating and doing the people’s business.”

Having four-year terms, he said, “would allow legislators to spend more time legislating and serving the public and reduce the influence of special interests.”

In March, Mr. Cooper, of Lloyd Harbor, introduced a measure that would have split the difference between two- and four-year terms: it called for a referendum on Suffolk legislators being elected to three-year legislative terms.

But in an interview Friday, Mr. Cooper said he has come to consider that plan problematic. Elections for seats on the Suffolk Legislature, he noted, would take place in some years when elections for other county offices and town positions are held and in other years when federal and state offices are at stake. So, he said, he redrafted the bill to change the number from three to four.

In the text of the bill, Mr. Cooper starts off noting that all elected officials in Suffolk County government have four-year terms, with the “exception” of county legislators, who have two-year terms.

Meanwhile, “as Suffolk County’s population has grown, the issues and problems facing our county have grown in complexity and difficulty, making the needs for long-term planning and careful, nuanced policy-making more acute.”

“A two-year legislative term is an impediment to solid, long-range planning and policy making,” the bill goes on. “A two-year term leads to an unhealthy focus on short-term needs and quick fixes, often at the expense of the long-term interests of Suffolk County residents … A two-year election cycle forces legislators to spend much of their time planning and fund-raising for their next political campaign.”

Mr. Cooper stressed that, even if the term for county legislators is extended from two to four years, the 12-year term limit provision will stay. Rather than being forced to leave the legislature after six consecutive two-year terms, legislators would not be able to serve after three four-year terms.

Mr. Cooper said research he has done on the number of years members of other county legislatures around New York are elected shows that 25 have two-year terms, 16 four-year terms, three three-year terms and other counties have “a mix.”

The reaction of fellow county legislators to Mr. Cooper’s bid is mixed.

Legislator Edward Romaine of Center Moriches said that “I think two years are fine. It gives the public a very short leash on you. You have to be on your toes. The terms for members of the House of Representatives and the State Assembly are for two years. Two years makes lawmakers very responsive.”

However, Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk said he is “all for” four-year terms. “Having to run for election every two years really takes an awful lot of time that could be used for constituent work … As soon as you get in, you are running again. You spend too much time campaigning.” Also, legislators might tend “not to do controversial stuff” with a two-year term “because if it runs into an election … they’re afraid they will have it … used against them.”

In 2002, the referendum vote on Mr. Cooper’s four-year term bill—which was Proposal One on the ballot—was 107,983 against and 85,403 for a change from two years, a 56-to-44-percent split. However, records from the Suffolk Board of Elections reflect a very high number of voters, 168,870, left the ballot question blank.

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