With elections fast approaching in Brigantine, once again the subject of setting term limits for elected officials has arisen. The idea has been floated unsuccessfully many times in the past, but this year it seems that instead of being dismissed out-of-hand, many full and part-time residents have taken up the cause and expressed their wish that it at least be seriously considered. It may be that term limits are an idea whose time has come.
The most obvious example of the need for limiting the tenure of elected officials is longtime Mayor Phil Guenther. Reigning as the Mayor of Brigantine for an astounding 22 years, it cannot be disputed that Mayor Guenther is a popular figure on the island. It is not possible to be successful for so long without doing some things right. Phil Guenther is without a doubt a very respected civil servant. However, in the eyes of some residents, his tenure has come to resemble an appointment for life and not a temporary post.
“The primary reason [for term limits] is not to dislodge entrenched incumbents who use the resources of the modern state as entrenching tools–although this is, over time, a powerful reason. The primary and sufficient reason for limits is to remove one motive–careerism–for entering, and for making decisions while in, government.”- George Will
In the Press of Atlantic City, Mayor Guenther was recently quoted as defending his unlimited tenure by stating, “One of the benefits of being in office is I feel very comfortable working with elected officials. You do develop a lot of those relationships over the years.” While that reasoning might be considered valid by those concerned with the Mayor’s comfort and relationships, it seems a very weak justification for refusing to acknowledge that as times change, so must our leadership. While there can be no doubt that Mayor Guenther has become very “comfortable” in his position, it strains credibility to believe that no other candidate could work with elected officials equally well. And, as far as the relationships that he has developed over the years, that may be more a part of the problem than a justification to continue the status quo.
For those fortunate enough to have developed a “relationship” with the Mayor, the past 22 years have been probably been very pleasant and satisfying. A possible downside, however, is that with the same man in office for so long, those relationships tend to become rather exclusive. There are many instances in recent history of some businesses receiving preferential patronage from the city, while some other business owners find themselves on the outside looking in.
Longtime Brigantine fixtures like the Root Beer Barrel Surf Shop and Fred Ray’s Lighthouse Circle Gas Station, to cite two of the more egregious examples, have found themselves unable to compete with similar businesses on the island that did not have the privilege of a “relationship” with the Mayor. It seems reasonable to conclude that a regular change in leadership might result in a more equitable distribution of city patronage.
There are also many who hold the opinion that the lack of interest shown by many businesses in expanding to Brigantine may be due to the perception that the entrenched government is willing and able to make life hard for business owners who do not fit into the established agenda. Some feel that it is not worth the effort of soliciting the favor of city government simply in order to be allowed to do business in an often exclusionary atmosphere.
Nepotism among city employees is another matter with which many residents take issue. There is a perception among many that Brigantine is a closed system. It cannot be seriously denied that there is an unusually high percentage of 2nd and 3rd generation city employees on the island. While it would be naive to expect all forms of political patronage to disappear simply by setting term limits on elected officials, it is not unreasonable to assume that if the leaders were to change periodically, such largesse might be more equitably distributed among island residents without the same old last names.
Historically, the failure to set term limitations on government in any form has almost always shown itself to be disastrous in the long run, breeding complacency, arrogance and a feeling of entitlement that alienates the populace. Persons who achieve a position of power rarely surrender that power voluntarily. Simply justifying unlimited terms of office by pointing out that the people keep electing the same candidate is not a persuasive argument. In a small town like Brigantine, folks know the reality that to stand against the established order is to make one’s self an enemy, with all the attendant aggravation that is known to entail. Since serious challenges to Mayor Guenther’s reign have been rare in the past, it might be considered foolish by some to stand, or even vote, against the man everyone assumes will be in charge until he decides not to be.
This is not a call to dethrone Mayor Guenther simply for its own sake. Those residents who are happy with his administration and policies are completely justified in supporting his reelection. However, it must be considered that imposing term limits for elected officials has shown itself to be effective in creating more competitive elections and preventing the creation of a professional political class whose only concern is continued reelection.
Patrick Costello is the author of the Brigantine best selling book: ‘Greenhead Politics’.