Case Illustrates Why How a Measure is Worded Matters

Editor’s note: the following is a legal alert from BBK Law.

A California appellate court affirmed that the “two term” term limit provision in the City of Stockton’s Charter was non-cumulative rather than cumulative. Consequently, a person may serve as city council member for two terms, followed by two terms as mayor, or vice versa, and rack up a total of 16 years on city council, according to White v. City of Stockton, published Jan. 10 by the Third District Court of Appeal.

Ralph White filed a petition to 1.) remove Ann Johnston as Stockton’s mayor and 2.) stop her from running for reelection because she had served two terms as a council member prior to taking office as mayor. White cited the City’s Charter, which includes a provision that limits the number of terms an individual can serve: “No person elected as either mayor or council member shall be eligible to serve, or serve, as either mayor or council member for more than two terms….”

At issue were two competing interpretations of the limit: whether the term limit provision focused on the individual office holder, and was a cumulative limit, or focused on the office of council member and mayor, respectively, and was non-cumulative. White argued that the language imposed a cumulative limit – whether the person holds the office of mayor or council member is irrelevant because both offices count toward the two-term limit (i.e., a person could be mayor for two terms, council member for two terms, or mayor for one term and council member for one term).

The City, on the other hand, argued that the language imposed a non-cumulative limit that applied separately to the office of mayor and council member (i.e., a person could be mayor for two terms and subsequently serve as council member for two terms, or vice versa, so long as the person does not exceed the two-term limit on each office).

The difference between cumulative and non-cumulative limits is stark. With a cumulative limit, a person could not hold either office more than twice, or a combination of each office more than once, resulting in a maximum of four years in office. However, a non-cumulative limit would allow a person to hold each office twice, resulting in a maximum of eight years in office (double the allowance under a cumulative limit).

The appellate court found that the language did not contain a clearly written cumulative limitation, unlike language in the California Constitution, which bars a person from serving “more than 12 years in the Senate, the Assembly, or both, in any combination of terms….” Noting the importance of a citizen’s right to run for and hold public office, the court was bound to “resolve any ambiguity in favor of the eligibility to run for office.” The court also found that the City’s non-cumulative limit interpretation to be a reasonable construction. Finally, the court examined extrinsic aids in the form of 1.) ballot materials, 2.) how the City applied the restriction and 3.) the Charter itself, to confirm the conclusion that the limit was meant to be non-cumulative.

This case underscores the importance of careful drafting to ensure that the intent of a measure is not “lost in translation.” Indeed, the inclusion of five words could have changed the outcome of this case and the political landscape in the City of Stockton.

[divider] [/divider]

For more information about this case or how it might impact your city or public agency, please contact one of the authors of this Legal Alert listed at the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

Please feel free to share this Legal Alert or subscribe by clicking here. Follow us on Twitter @bbklaw.

Disclaimer: BB&K legal alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.