A Dallas City Council discussion about democracy and empowering voters ended abruptly on Tuesday when council members decided against allowing residents to decide the merits of a proposed charter amendment.

Currently, council members are prohibited by charter from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms. However, they are eligible to seek office again after at least one term — or two years — has elapsed. Council Member Cara Mendelsohn (District 12) offered an amendment that would place a hard limit on four straight two-year terms, removing the option to become a candidate after sitting out one term.

“Incumbents receive a significant election advantage of name recognition,” Mendelsohn said. “Serving a maximum of four terms allows a council member time to contribute significantly to the city. As a large city, there are many qualified Dallas residents who can serve as representatives of their district. Final term limits, meaning without an ability to return to the same office, prevent a concentration of power, allows for fresh perspectives, minimizes the risk of corruption, and fosters a more responsive political environment.”

Mendelsohn is in her third term, which ends next year. She first took office in June 2019.

“I will support this amendment,” Council Member Kathy Stewart (District 10) said. “I can see the benefits of a new perspective, of a fresh perspective. I can also see the benefits of different appointments to commissions. I have a different connection with my district than the previous council member did. I think new people bring a lot of benefits.”

The city charter dictates that the mayor’s office cannot serve more than two four-year terms consecutively. Mayor Eric Johnson is in his second term. If he desires to run again after his current term ends in 2027, he must wait a full term of four years before he can be a mayoral candidate again.

To advance her argument for the amendment, Mendelsohn said that other candidates often wait to seek office until the incumbents have termed out, citing financial and other obstacles in defeating them.

“This is how it works,” she said. “Don’t shake your head. This is not the Fairview Town Council. There’s 1.3 million people in Dallas, you know that there’s a lot of people qualified to do this job.”

Fairview is a community of about 10,000 people in Collin County. Its council consists of six representatives and the mayor.

“You don’t have to be special to be a Dallas City Council member,” Mendelsohn continued. “You are a representative of your area, and you have thousands of people in your district that can actually do this job. … I would encourage other people, including in District 12, to get involved and be in this seat. But it should not be a seat that is owned by a person because they’ve established a name reputation.”

Council Member Carolyn King Arnold (District 4) jumped into the debate, saying voters decide who they want to represent them, regardless of how many terms they’ve served.

“If communities make a decision to cast a vote for a candidate, that’s their choice,” she said. “I think when we come here, what I have seen [is] … a service to those constituents. Institutional knowledge has its values, and I don’t say that from a standpoint of trying to be a dictator in that position or a monarch. I’m telling you what I’ve come to know. This speaks to democracy.”

Other council members offered a similar opinion, insisting that voters shouldn’t be limited in their choices.

“I’m not supportive of this item, and the reason why is I view this from the perspective of a voter,” Council Member Jaime Resendez (District 5) said. “If the previous council member is the best qualified person willing to run … why would we take that opportunity away from the voters to choose?”

Council Member Omar Narvaez (District 6) also opposed Mendelsohn’s proposed amendment.

“I’m definitely rising in opposition to this. I can tell you for a fact I’m one of those people who did not wait [for the incumbent to term out]. What gets somebody through [is] not the name recognition. It’s the work you do. … It’s an insult to democracy. It’s very rare that past council members come back anyway. I don’t see why we’re discussing this.”

For her part, Council Member Gay Donnell Willis (District 13) suggested that voters may simply choose someone else at the ballot box if they’re not happy with the incumbents.

“I think we do have term limits [because] the voters show up at the ballot box and decide whether we are elected or re-elected,” she said. “I still come away with the ultimate decision lies with our voters. The way things are now is you have to sit out a term. But some … districts still like the continuity and the value that’s added. If you don’t think your council member is doing a good job, you don’t re-elect them.”

Council Member Adam Bazaldua (District 7) pointed out that he had come by his seat by defeating an incumbent while “our sitting mayor [was] campaigning against me,” and opposed the amendment.

That’s when Stewart said Mendelsohn’s proposal should be sent to ballot.

“Why don’t we give the voters this opportunity? Throw it out there. See what they say. That gives them input on this.”

Mendelsohn called out the irony of some council members’ opposition to the amendment.

“I think council member Stewart made an excellent point,” she said. “People are talking about democracy, but democracy is putting this in front of the voters and letting them decide. Really, if you believe in democracy, you will allow the voters to vote this up or down, and I think they should be allowed to do so.”

The amendment failed to receive majority support in informal voting. Like other council member amendments proposed, it will receive no further consideration from the council.

Every 10 years, the Charter Review Commission votes to include or exclude proposed amendments to the charter for council members’ consideration. The council must then decide whether to place any or all of them on the ballot — as modified or submitted — for voters to approve or disapprove. The recommended deadline for the council to approve amendments is June 26, and the date to order the election is August 14.

Election day is November 5.

In the only other proposed amendment considered on Tuesday, no council member supported Mendelsohn’s effort to allow the mayor to select the mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem instead of the council.

“City council elections of these positions are often divisive and dictated sometimes by demographics,” she said. “Just recently, we had a discussion about a seat needing to be a certain ethnicity. We have racial discussions frequently about combining the mayor, deputy mayor, and mayor pro tem positions so that they’re representing various races. This is not a good way to select. What we’ve seen is things function best when those positions are working in harmony with the mayor.”

The Dallas Express reported last week that Council Member Tennell Atkins (District 8) was re-elected mayor pro tem, and Bazaldua was elected deputy mayor pro tem to succeed Arnold.