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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004 05:15 am

Now you see it, now you don’t

Frank McNeil has a tangible reminder of how long he has been on city council: it's his youngest child, his son Kofi.

"When I was sworn in, I could carry him in my arms," McNeil says. "Now he's 280 pounds and 21 years old."

McNeil was elected to represent Ward 3 way back in 1987, the year a federal judge ordered Springfield to switch from an at-large form of city government to the current aldermanic system.

Now in his fourth four-year-term, McNeil says he has plenty of work left to do. But a 1990s provision limits aldermen to 12 years, so this term has to be McNeil's last.

Or does it?

Council was poised to consider an ordinance striking the term-limit clause from the city code. Co-sponsored by Ward 4 Alderman Chuck Redpath and Ward 8 Alderman Irv Smith, this ordinance would have given council members the right to as many terms as voters elect them to serve.

Of the 10 council members, five are in their final terms -- under current rules. Those five are McNeil, Redpath, Smith, Ward 7 Alderwoman Judy Yeager, and Ward 10 Alderman Bruce Strom.

The ordinance was listed in the "first reading" section of the final agenda for Wednesday night's meeting and was generating some interest among aldermen when City Clerk Cecilia Tumulty reminded everyone that the question would require a referendum.

Term limits were added to the city code in 1991, but didn't take effect until 1995. No alderman has yet been forced off the council due to term limits.

Barry Becker, former alderman for Ward 7, sponsored the 1991 ordinance instituting term limits. He recalls having to struggle to get council approval to put the question on the ballot for a referendum. He even had to adjust his original proposal -- an eight-year limit -- to 12.

"Neither [political party] chairman was happy with the ordinance. I had to work to get six votes," he says.

Some city officials remembered that referendum as merely advisory, but after checking with the State Elections Board, Tumulty found that it was a binding referendum.

It was also a landslide, with 73 percent of voters endorsing term limits.

"I think that's overwhelming, don't you?" Becker asks. "And now they're trying to change it because they've got six votes. It's amazing. I'm really surprised."

One current alderman who agrees with Becker is Ward 1's Frank Edwards, who says maybe term limits should be revised from 12 years down to eight.

"An incumbent is tough to beat because they've got their name out there. It's not impossible. [Ward 3 Alderman Frank] Kunz did it. But I think it makes it tougher," Edwards says.

"And flushing out the system once in a while is a good thing."

McNeil, on the other hand, has a different perspective on term limits. He calls them an "artificial way of trying to get out people who you can't beat." Besides, he says, whether the city code calls for term limits or not, the system has its own method for achieving that goal.

"Term limits are determined by your constituents," McNeil says. "If it's time for you to go, they will turn you out."

Kunz was also ready to support the Redpath/Smith proposal, echoing McNeil's philosophy of letting voters limit terms.

And he brought up another potential problem with maintaining the existing term limits: What if aldermen reached their limits, and no other candidates stepped forward?

"Remember last time, in four wards, nobody would even run," Kunz says. "Nobody wants this job."

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