After a month-long debate that has rocked New York City politics, the City Council on Thursday afternoon passed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial bill to extend term limits, clearing the way for the mayor to run for a third term in office next year.
The historic measure passed by a vote of 29-22 following seven hours of pitched debate among the 51 members.
When the final tally was read, a crowd of protesters in the council chambers called out in opposition.
The formal vote got underway shortly after 4 p.m. after an amendment calling for a voter referendum was defeated by the council.
Each of the councilmembers got two minutes to address the chamber in the course of casting their vote, and their speeches drew a combination of cheers and jeers from the gallery. [See a tally of all the votes cast.]
Heading into today's vote, a survey taken by NY1 showed 20 councilmembers supported the mayor's bill, 22 opposed it and 9 were undecided. [See the complete survey results.]
The council needed 26 votes to pass the mayor's plan, which will extend term limits to three four-year terms from the current limit of two.
The issue has pitted councilmember against councilmember and spawned a citywide debate since Bloomberg announced on October 3 that he would seek to have the 15-year-old term limits law overturned. In a public poll commissioned last week by NY1, three-quarters of the respondents said the term limits question should be put to a public vote instead of decided upon by the council.
The law limiting elected officials to two terms was twice approved by voters in public referendums in 1993 and 1996, leading some lawmakers – and much of the public – to favor another referendum instead of a City Council vote.
Councilmembers David Yassky (left), Alan Gerson and Gale Brewer proposed such a referendum as an amendment to the mayor's bill in the early hours of Thursday's council session, after which each councilmember was given two minutes to speak for or against.
After a heated debate, the amendment was voted down with 22 supporting it, 28 against, and one abstention.
When the mayor's bill finally came up for a vote in its original form, Yassky and Gerson voted for the extension, while Brewer did not.
"I believe, and it is with great sadness because I am certainly not a profile in courage, but I believe it is better to achieve a term limits extension by referendum than by vote," Brewer said. "I vote no."
"I must say that this is probably the most difficult and agonizing decision that I've had to make in my public career, and to me it's been an emotional one because I take this seriously," said Councilman James Vacca (right), who voted in favor of the term limit extension after earlier indicating to NY1 that he was opposed.
"Opponents of this bill may mischaracterize it as some sort of backroom deal," said Speaker Christine Quinn, who voted for the measure. "That is, quite frankly, ludicrous."
After the bill passed by a vote of 29-22, Bloomberg released a statement commending the council.
"Today, the majority of the City Council decided to give the people of New York a fuller choice in the November, 2009 election," it said. "I believe that was the right choice, and I want to thank Speaker Quinn for her leadership. Those of us who work on both sides of City Hall must now move forward with the important decisions that face us... We have a lot of work to do together to get New York through these tough times.”
Earlier Thursday the bill easily swept through the Government Operations Committee by a vote of 7-0. Chairman Simcha Felder, Peter Vallone, Jr, Inez Dickens, Helen Sears, Erik Martin Dilan, Councilman Larry Seabrook, and Domenic Reccia, Jr. all voted in favor of the measure.
Many supporters of the legislation said that allowing voters to decide for themselves would have been ideal, but it was not practical due to the possibility of a prolonged court battle.
They said their decisions were not the product of arm twisting by any other lawmakers but instead the exact judgments they were elected to make.
"Some have argued that this is an issue that the council should not decide. I do not believe that to be the case," said Felder. "We do not ask voters to determine the nuances of other legislation or charter amendments, and this is no different."
"My vote does not grant my favor or disfavor for or with any official," said Dickens. "In making my decision I have tried to do what I'm elected and that is to act in the best interests of my community, my district and the people of this great city."
Fellow supporter of the bill, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (left), said she believes this measure will allow New Yorkers a greater choice.
Of the 51 councilmembers, 35 of them would have been prohibited from running for re-election next year had term limits not been extended.
A judge on Wednesday cleared the way for Thursday's vote by dismissing a petition by council members Bill de Blasio and Letitia James.
They claimed the vote would violate the city's Conflict of Interests law.
The judge ruled that members could always choose to vote no, or abstain.
The city's Conflict of Interest Board ruled the council could vote on the proposal even though they could directly benefit from the change.