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Council Hears Sometimes-Testy Feedback On Term Limits

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Government figures and members of the public weighed in on the term limits debate Thursday during an often-testy session at City Hall, the first of two days of hearings on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial bill to extend term limits.

While the day-long proceedings were scheduled to hear the views of the public, the first three hours were dedicated to testimony from local and state experts.

Among those who testified Thursday include former Governor Mario Cuomo, the city's corporate counsel, former Mayor Ed Koch, and Dick Dadey of good government group the Citizens Union.

Each speaker was given two minutes to make their statement, followed by questions from council members.

In total, 148 speakers addressed the hearing over ten hours, but more than 200 had signed up to speak. Some people left before they were called, dismayed at the meeting's delays, and others did not step forward to testify when called upon.

At several points Thursday, a screaming match developed between the council members and those testifying.

Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron, who is against the proposal, flared out at committee chair Simcha Felder and then challenged former Governor Mario Cuomo's support for the term limits extension.

Later, former Public Advocate Mark Green said the council was taking away the people's right to vote.

"When you come in here and say this is unethical conduct, you're wrong," responded Brooklyn Councilman Domenic Recchia, who supports the proposal. "This is within our power and we have the authority to do this for the best interest of the city."

"Let the voters decide," answered Green.

"And they will decide. If they don't like it they'll decide in September in the primary and some in the general election in November," said Recchia.

The public had to wait several hours before they could testify, but the youngest speaker delivered a notable address.

"I think Mayor Bloomberg is the worst mayor ever. He gave tons of money to the Bush family and the Republicans so he deserves some blame for Iraq and the other problems in NYC and the whole country," said 14-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg. "Also our taxes, rent and bills have gone way up since Bloomberg became mayor. Any monkey can raise taxes - no offense to monkeys, but that doesn't make you a great mayor."

The front rows of the council chamber were filled long before the hearing began with Bloomberg supporters who held professional-looking signs calling themselves "Democrats for Choice," but who refused to tell reporters their names or why they were there.

A group refused to talk to reporters when they left the chamber and one denied being at the the hearing at all.

A NY1 reporter overheard some asking if they were being provided lunch, but they would not comment on the issue.

The mayor would not say if he or anyone affiliated with the mayor's office paid supporters to attend. He was noticeably absent, instead attending the reopening of the expanded Times Square TKTS booth.

"I don't know who's at today's hearings. I can tell you the people I met on the subway coming up here aren't being paid, at least not by me," said Bloomberg. "I assume they all work for a living. Look, we're out there trying to campaign, we've got to get as many people to testify."

The mayor said he's been personally working the phones, trying to mobilize people to testify in support of giving him another four years to lead the city through rocky economic times.

While the groundswell of opposition against his plan has been intense, the mayor downplayed the dissent.

"I think the opposition you're seeing is a handful of people who are very strident and hardworking, who have written 1,000 letters to a City Council person and the council person says everyone's against it. That's not true," said Bloomberg.

The hearing comes one day after Bloomberg campaigned in California in favor of a proposition that would prevent lawmakers there from redrawing their districts. Bloomberg called it a self-serving way for lawmakers to keep themselves in office.

Wednesday in the city, the Conflict of Interest Board ruled council members can vote on the term limits measure, even though the legislation affects them. The board found that voting on matters that might affect council members' personal or political interests does not violate the City Charter.

The council could vote on the measure as early as next Thursday.

One of the council members who still undecided on term limits is Alan Gerson. NY1 asked his constituents in Lower Manhattan today for their thoughts on term limits.

"Now with the economy the way it is, I would say Bloomberg is a good businessman and I would tell them to stick by him; give him another four years," said one Manhattan resident.

"He shouldn't have the power to make the change like that," countered another. "I think it really should be voted on."

"People voted for term limits. The people's vote should count, don't you think?" said another. "What's the sense of voting if they can change it the way they want?"

On Wednesday night, another councilman, Staten Island's Michael McMahon, said in his district's congressional debate that term limits take away voters' choices.

"The point is that when you have term limits you limit voters' rights to choose the best candidate," said McMahon. "I have never supported term limits. I think that it's anti-American. It doesn't exist on the state level or the federal level. The problem we face in this situation is the history that got us here and that is something we are looking at in City Council."

Despite his speaking against term limits, McMahon has not indicated whether he will vote for the mayor's proposed term limits extension.

On Friday, NY1's live coverage of the hearings from City Hall begins at 10 a.m.

Where They Stand

See our running tally of where each City Council member stands on term limits, including e-mail links and information on which members are term-limited themselves.

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