Brookhaven residents may get to vote whether to allow unlimited terms for the mayor if a bill passes the Senate today, June 26, and gets the governor’s signature.

The unlimited terms, if approved, would apply to incumbent Mayor John Ernst. The bill has the support of three of four City Council members, whose offices currently have no term limits. Three years ago, a city charter review commission recommended term limits for the mayor and council members.

House Bill 695 is a revived bill from last year that was amended this session to remove the mayor term limits completely instead of extending the limit to three terms. It also adds a referendum vote so residents could make the ultimate decision instead of the Legislature.

June 26 is the final day of the General Assembly’s current session. If the bill passes and is signed into law, the referendum vote would be on the ballot during the November general election this year. If a majority voted to remove the term limits, it would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

The Brookhaven City Council voted 3-1 to approve a resolution in support of the bill during a June 23 council meeting.

In the council meeting, Ernst said the Legislature made the decision to add the referendum and remove mayoral term limits completely, but he did not give his opinion about the bill.

Currently, the mayor can serve two consecutive four-year terms, while council members have unlimited terms. Ernst was elected in 2019 for his second term, meaning the change would allow him to serve as long as he kept getting the majority vote.

Councilmember Joe Gebbia voted against allowing unlimited term limits, though all other members voiced their support of the bill.

“I ran from Day One, back in 2012, on the grounds of term limits,” Gebbia said in the council meeting. “I’m living true to my commitment. I have self-imposed term limits. I understand the arguments for this, but I do not believe it is the proper action.”

Councilmember Linley Jones said she supports the resolution because she does not think arbitrary term limits should prohibit voters from choosing their preferred representatives.

For Councilmember John Park, the small voter base in Brookhaven caused his “yes” vote.

“Term limits in certain situations may be relevant, but — particularly for the size and nature of Brookhaven — it’s hard enough to get people to run, which is why I support this,” Park said.

A 2017 review of the city charter by a city-appointed commission suggested implementing three-term limits for both the mayor and council to encourage other residents to run for office.

“The Commission found that the city has a wealth of well-educated, civic-minded and otherwise qualified residents available to serve elected office,” the 2017 report said. “Because of the advantages of incumbency, these talented people are reluctant to stand for office.”

Councilmember Madeleine Simmons said she heard community concerns about allowing the Legislature to decide term limits while she ran for office, so she’s glad the bill includes a referendum.

“This is consistent with allowing people to vote for what they want and who they want,” Simmons said.

The addition of the referendum caused the bill to fail when it went through the Senate last year. State Sens. Sally Harrell (D-Dunwoody) and Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) made the last-minute change to include the referendum because Harrell said she wanted the residents to decide term limits since Brookhaven is such a young city.

In addition to a referendum to eliminate mayoral term limits, the bill includes other changes that were recommended by the charter review, such as having the city appoint a new mayor or council member if the elected official is unable to finish the last year of their term.

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