The 2021 election prompted conversations online and in communities about if the Atlanta City Council should have term limits. Five longtime members of the Atlanta City Council either retired, lost their re-election, or lost their bid for higher office in city government.
In December 1783, George Washington announced he would not seek a third term as president of the fledging United States. “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he told Congress, “I retire from the great theatre of Action.”
Washington’s resignation set an unofficial two-term precedent for the presidency (later enshrined as the 22nd Amendment), and sparked a debate about American democracy that still endures: Does limiting elected officials’ tenure make them better representatives of the people who elect them?
The presidency and most state governorships have term limits, which are seen as a check on executive power and a bulwark against tyranny. Most legislative bodies, however, don’t have term limits: representatives hold office for as many terms as voters elect them to serve. That’s true for the U.S. Congress, Georgia’s General Assembly, and Atlanta City Council.
There is popular support for introducing term limits in legislatures, based on the belief that term limits reduce the risk of corruption and cronyism from elected officials. Term limits are also seen as a way to eliminate unresponsive career politicians, shortening time in office and reducing incumbents’ advantage against challengers.
Research shows, however, that term limits rarely achieve those aims in practice–especially when it comes to legislatures. Some experts and city officials argue, in fact, that having no term limits gives legislatures a better balance of experience and innovation, making for more effective representation.
Even without term limits, the Atlanta City Council’s elections last November demonstrated that newcomers frequently unseat long-serving incumbents by promising to shake up the status quo.
Out of this term’s 16-member council, six will be serving for the first time, including the new council president, Doug Shipman. Mary Norwood and Alex Wan are both back on the council, having served terms in years past.
Many of the newcomers campaigned as change makers who would bring fresh ideas to city council–and first-term councilmembers Jason Dozier and Antonio Lewis both beat incumbents–Cleta Winslow and Joyce Sheperd, respectively–who had been on the council for well over a decade.
While some districts were ready for their long-serving representatives to move on, two veteran council members, Michael Julian Bond and Howard Shook, were welcomed back with large vote margins.
Those different outcomes suggest that voters care more about results than a particular length of service, said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University. “The real question is not how long have they been there, but what have they accomplished?”
Atlanta limits the mayor to two consecutive terms (although previous mayors can run again after sitting out a term, as Kasim Reed did unsuccessfully last year)–but in Georgia, term limits for other city officials aren’t the norm, said Rusi Patel, the Georgia Municipal Association’s general counsel.
“Of 537 cities [in Georgia], it’s actually pretty rare for councils or mayors to have term limits,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle.
That’s also true nationally–the International City/County Management Association found that over 91% of U.S. municipalities had no term limits for mayor or city council.
Why have term limits at all? Proponents argue that they reduce corruption and the power of special interests and lobbyists. Conservative pundit George F. Will has suggested that applying term limits to Congress would foster a carpe diem attitude that could help cure legislative gridlock. Curbing the power of career incumbents, some argue, could make room for regular people to seek office as “citizen legislators,” which might increase racial and gender diversity in politics.
Term limits are also popular with the public. A 2015 Gallup poll found 75% of American adults supported term limits for Congress, and New Yorkers consistently approve of term limits for their city council, after first approving them in a 1993 referendum.
However, the data doesn’t bear out those lofty aims, according to Emory Professor Owens. “Term limits are popular among the public,” he said. “But they are unpopular among political scientists.”
Term limits have little to no impact on diversity amongst legislators, nor on the fiscal policies implemented by a legislative body, according to political science research. Rather than empowering citizen legislators, the high turnover caused by term limits tends to benefit the government bureaucracy that legislatures oversee, by making oversight more difficult.
Oversight is an important city council function in cities like Atlanta, where the mayor has strong executive authority, Owens said. That can be stymied by the legislative churn that term limits produce.
“If you are constantly turning over your council members, that is affecting the degree to which any individual council member can develop expertise and knowledge about institutional affairs–and try to make a difference,” the political science professor said.
Bond, who’s served on the Atlanta City Council for 19 of the last 27 years, said it takes time to understand the workings of a large city government – a lot of time.
“When I was first elected,” he recalled, “they told me you need to be here at least two terms to learn all the ins and outs of the bureaucracy [and] learn how not to get hoodwinked when you’re exercising your oversight role.”
Bond will pass that institutional knowledge along to newcomers like city council president Doug Shipman, who said he welcomes the wisdom. “Folks who have those deep experiences,” he said, “I will absolutely be calling them–saying, ‘Can you explain how we do this?’ or ‘Why do we do it this way?’”
But city council members’ biggest responsibility is serving their constituents. When an effective council member is term-limited, Bond said, “that harms the community – you’re forcing them to give up someone they approve of, who represents their interests.”
At the local level, people value the accessibility of their district representative, Shipman said. “You may actually run into your city councilperson at Home Depot,” he said. ”There’s an extra emphasis on connection.”
While institutional knowledge and relationships with local residents are important, experienced doesn’t always mean effective. (For Bond, who’s still paying off a steep 2015 fine for ethics violations, it also doesn’t mean devoid of controversy.)
First-term councilmember Jason Dozier successfully ousted a 27-year incumbent, Cleta Winslow, by making the case that District 4 voters were tired of “bread and butter issues” going unaddressed. (This was Dozier’s second bid for the seat, after running unsuccessfully against Winslow in 2017.)
“That’s the biggest challenge of having people in office for a long time,” Dozier told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It’s hard to think outside the box – you get stuck in your ways.”
When young newcomers run for office, Dozier added, they challenge long-serving politicians to step up their game, lest they be unseated. And whether ineffective council members are ousted by term limits or elections, change is a healthy part of the democratic process.
“I don’t want any of us to feel that the seat is ours forever,” Dozier said. “It belongs to the people.”
The City of Atlanta’s 2021 elections ushered in a new City Council President, along with a mix of new and returning council members. Meet your new Atlanta City Council.