WASHINGTON – Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday that he will ask City Council to change New York's term-limits law so he can run for another four years in office to deal with the "unprecedented challenges" brought on by the financial meltdown.
"The question for me has become much less about the theoretical and much more about the practical. And so to put it in very practical terms, handling this financial crisis while strengthening the essential services such as education and public safety is a challenge I want to take on for the people of New York," Bloomberg said at a City Hall news conference.
"So if the City Council should vote to amend term limits, I plan to ask New Yorkers to look at my record of independent leadership and then decide if I've earned another term. As always, it will be up to the people to decide, not me."
The current law limits the mayor to two four-year terms. Bloomberg, 66, was elected two months after Sept. 11 and then cruised to a landslide in 2005 after spending tens of millions of his own fortune.
Bloomberg is almost certain to face a legal challenge if he tries to seek a change to the law. Several lawyers and good government groups said they are mulling legal action to block any changes without the approval of voters, who have twice voted to support the cap.
Bloomberg has already begun lining up support for the move. On Wednesday, the mayor met with council Speaker Christine Quinn — herself a potential mayoral candidate — but no details emerged about the meeting. Quinn spokeswoman Maria Alvarado said the two plan to meet again in the coming days.
Gov. David Paterson offered his endorsement of the idea, calling Bloomberg "an exceptional leader," although he called the term limits question "a local issue for the city of New York to resolve."
A group of influential business leaders and powerbrokers, including Goldman Sachs Group CEO Lloyd Blankfein, JPMorgan Chase Chairman James Dimon and Henry Kissinger, took out ads in city newspapers urging the council to amend the law to allow for more than two four-year terms.
"In thinking about the challenges ahead beyond the direct challenges of managing the financial crisis, I've asked myself, 'Do we have more work to do ...?' and the answer is yes, we have more to do, a lot more to do," Bloomberg said.
Norman Siegel, a well-known civil liberties lawyer, said Wednesday that he has received calls from several people urging him to file a lawsuit to block the move, including one political candidate whose campaign plans would be disrupted by such a move.
"The legal question is, can you undo a public referendum by legislative fiat?" Siegel said, promising "a hard look" at a legal challenge.
Other lawyers also geared up to take action.
"Lawyers all around the city are going over this with a fine-toothed comb," said Gene Russianoff, a senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Veterans of similar battles, however, say Bloomberg's opponents might not find much solace in the courts.
State and federal judges in New York have a history of rulings that would seem to affirm the council's authority to extend or repeal term limits without going back to the voters.
A state appeals court ruled in 1961 that Buffalo's city council could legally repeal voter-approved term limits without holding a new referendum.
A lower-level appeals court backed New York City's council when it made minor alterations to the term limits law in 2002 to erase a quirk that would have limited some of its members to no more than six consecutive years in office, rather than eight.
"This isn't a close case. This is open and shut," said Robert Joffe, an attorney who helped represent the council during that legal battle.
He said courts have repeatedly held that legislative bodies in New York have a right to repeal old laws in favor of new ones. "A law is a law, and it doesn't matter if it was passed by the City Council, or by referendum. They have the same weight," Joffe said.
Raymond Dowd, another attorney involved in the 2002 court battle, also saw few opportunities for a successful challenge.
"It sounds to me like they would have a really, really tough time," he said, although he added that the stakes were so high, an attempt to get the courts to intervene might be worth the long-shot odds.
At the news conference, Bloomberg said that it's "up to the City Council to change the law ... it's simply giving the public an extra opportunity to pick, and that's good."