YONKERS — A citizens group connected to the two-term City Council president is calling for a public referendum to extend term limits, an issue that has divided other members of the legislative body.
The Yonkers Committee for Term Limits kicked off a petition drive at City Hall Monday. Its goal is to collect the 4,000 signatures members say are needed for a November ballot proposition to allow the city’s elected officials to serve three terms, rather than two.
Several Yonkers Democratic district leaders said they formed the group at the urging of Council President Chuck Lesnick — the only member of the seven-seat council who will be forced out by term limits in 2013.
In Yonkers, council members and the mayor are limited to two terms, or eight consecutive years in office. Term limits became law in Yonkers after being approved by voters in a 1994 referendum and then upheld in 2001.
Supporters of the change say it would bring Yonkers in line with the Westchester County Board of Legislators and the New York City Council, which both have 12-year limits.
They also argue that long-term efforts to improve the city’s troubled finances, rehabilitate its deteriorating schools and oversee major development projects call for lengthier terms.
The referendum would be held a year before the 2013 city elections.
“We need consistency and not turnaround,” committee member Lois Heitner said Monday.
Republican Councilmen John Larkin and Mike Breen both said they oppose changing the law, particularly after the public had supported the measure twice.
“How many times do they have to say ‘no’?” Larkin asked.
Committee members contended that Yonkers voters were never specifically asked whether term limits should be for eight or 12 years.
Former Republican City Councilman John Murtagh also opposes the change. Murtagh lost the November 2011 mayoral election to then-state Assemblyman Mike Spano, a month after Spano, now mayor, beat Lesnick in Democratic mayoral primary.
“By end of eight years (in office),” Murtagh said Monday, “you’re getting a little tired, maybe even a little cynical and certainly not as fresh as you were when you started.
“To me, this is a transparent effort by Chuck to preserve his position,” he added.
Lesnick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Democratic Council Majority Leader Wilson Terrero declined to comment, saying only “people of Yonkers have spoken twice already expressing their opinion on this issue.”
Democratic Councilman Michael Sabatino said he supports term limits but will wait to see what voters might have to say about extending them.
Democratic Councilman Christopher Johnson felt likewise.
“If the citizens of Yonkers would like consistent but responsible representation, keeping institutional knowledge in place, I will support their efforts,” he said.