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Longserving mayors tend to become corrupt, right?

To those who think it's time to set limits on mayors’ term of office -- think again

Today’s local elections in Israel are an important event providing millions of Israeli citizens with an opportunity to select the mayor and local council members in their towns of residence. And yet, many Israelis have been indifferent towards these elections, with one of the main reasons for this apathy being the growth of corruption scandals involving mayors suspected of criminal acts, some of which have even resulted in convictions.

Against this backdrop, there are voices calling for imposing limits on mayors’ terms of office as a measure to reduce corruption in local government. This measure seems to make sense: mayors who serve for too long acquire excessive executive power, behave like the town sheriff disregarding their colleagues in the city council, and cut corners since they believe they know what’s best for their city and perceive themselves as invulnerable. Limiting their time in office to two or three terms will prevent such scenarios and may rehabilitate the image of local government.

There are several good reasons for considering this mechanism. First, Israeli mayors are directly elected and are not dependent on the political balance in their city councils. In this regard, they are similar to presidents in presidential democracies, in which the presidents’ time in office is limited to two four-year terms (United States, Brazil) or to a single six-year term (Mexico). In addition, term limits may enhance competition in local elections, preventing a state of serial-winning incumbent mayors. Taking these steps may combat citizens’ apathy, infuse the mayoral contests with energy, and increase voter participation.

And yet, very few countries set limits on mayors’ terms of office, especially parliamentary democracies like Israel. Opponents of term limits claim that they undermine accountability, inasmuch as voters reward mayors who have performed well, and punish those who performed poorly or abused their office, by choosing not to reelect them. Term limits would strip voters of their ability to reward a successful and competent mayor. Moreover, with no reelection on the table, the behavior of mayors in their final term might deteriorate: some will lose the positive incentive to “work for the people,” and others would lay down the ground for their next political position.

Last, but not least, the claim that mayors serving for long terms are more likely to be corrupt cannot be backed up with any evidence. A survey of more than 20 Israeli mayors involved in cases of corruption in the last 15 years revealed no connection between the time in office and involvement in corrupt affairs. In fact, the majority of mayors who engaged in corrupt behavior were in their first or second term of office at the time the scandal erupted.

Combating corruption in local government is vital, but I seriously doubt whether imposing term limits for mayors is an effective measure for achieving this goal. Rather, other measures should be considered instead; such as increasing oversight and regulation of mayor’s performance; exerting efforts to increase transparency in local government, to reform the conduct of municipal building and planning committees and to reinforce the status of municipal gatekeepers, such as the municipal legal counsel, treasurer, and internal auditor.

About the Author
Dr. Ofer Kenig is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Ashkelon Academic College. He recently co-authored the book, "From Party Politics to Personalized Politics.".