NEW YORK – The public had one more chance Friday to weigh in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's effort to change the city term-limits law, a move that would clear the way for him to run for re-election.
The second City Council committee hearing comes after lawmakers heard arguments during a lengthy session that went into the evening on Thursday. The two sides sparred over whether it was a necessary move to keep steady leadership during tough economic times or an "unseemly" act by a power-hungry politician ignoring the will of the voters.
The full council could vote as soon as next Thursday. Many of the 51 members have not declared their positions, and Bloomberg said Friday on his weekly radio show that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the final outcome.
The council is considering legislation introduced on behalf of the billionaire mayor, who stunned New York political circles two weeks ago when he announced he would seek to change the law so he could seek a third term. His second term concludes at the end of 2009, but the former CEO insists the city needs his expertise to survive the long-term effects of the financial crisis.
Those who oppose Bloomberg's efforts had argued that two hearings are not adequate to accommodate the multitudes of regular people wanting to be heard, but several hours into the first session, fewer than 10 witnesses were John Q. Public types.
Most were current and former city officials, legal experts, heads of good government groups, union leaders and others whose opinions were already well known.
Witnesses testifying for Bloomberg's side warned members of the council's governmental operations committee that "rational and clearheaded decisions" are needed in tough economic times. Opponents argued that rushing to change the law through the City Council, not a voter referendum, amounted to a "steamrolled legislative process."
Existing law limits officeholders to two consecutive four-year terms. Voters set the limit in a 1993 referendum and reaffirmed it three years later.
Despite occasional boos from the crowd during testimony, what some had billed as a raucous hearing was a relatively orderly session in City Hall.
Bloomberg did not attend the hearing. At a separate news conference Thursday, he dismissed the opposition as a "handful of people" on the fringe who manage to seem like a bigger group because of their determination and organization.
Both sides traded accusations that City Hall was stacked with paid supporters and not people who attended for their own reasons. The mayor didn't deny that his people were paid.
"When you have a hearing, you try to get people to come," he said. His cause was represented by a group holding signs that said, "If we can't choose we lose!"
Bloomberg dispatched some star witnesses — former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who has long railed against term limits, and former Mayor Ed Koch, who served three terms before the current limits were set.
Cuomo said term limits are "a desperate attempt to improve governance," arguing voters can get rid of elected officials simply by voting them out of office.
He had a testy exchange with Councilman Charles Barron, who does not support Bloomberg's bid to change the law. The councilman said term limits are often necessary to neutralize the incumbent advantage.
Other council members who oppose Bloomberg's effort said repeatedly that they do not necessarily disagree with the idea of changing term-limit law, but simply do not believe it should be done without voter input.
"Whether or not you are for or against term limits is not the issue," said Councilman David Weprin. "The issue is not term limits, but rather the process. The people have spoken, and it should remain in the hands of the people."
Another hearing was set for Friday.
In another development, fellow businessman B. Thomas Golisano is coming out against Bloomberg's bid and could spend millions to fight the effort. Golisano, the owner of the Buffalo Sabres, has run for governor in the past and has been active in many political causes.
Along with Bloomberg's proposal, the governmental operations committee was also considering two bills intended to thwart the mayor's effort.
One would require voter approval for any change to the term-limits law. The other would establish a commission to evaluate the issue and perhaps put it on the ballot.