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Petition Drive

Courtney Goebel collects signatures in the Haymarket in early August for a petition drive to put term limits on Lincoln's mayor. 

Backers of an initiative to add language prohibiting Lincoln mayors from serving more than three terms said Tuesday they have collected enough signatures to put the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Matt Innis, a spokesman for the Political Renewal Association, the committee pushing the initiative, said 5,561 Lincoln voters have signed the petition.

Organizers needed fewer than 3,800 verified voters to sign the petition before submitting signatures to the city clerk. The clerk’s office will later deliver them to the Lancaster County Election Commission for approval.

J.L. Spray, a Lincoln attorney helping organize the petition drive, announced during a noontime debate at the Lincoln Independent Business Association luncheon that the signatures would likely be submitted to the city clerk Tuesday afternoon.

Later Tuesday, Spray said organizers were again reviewing signatures and the petitions would likely be turned in Wednesday morning.

The earlier announcement came amid arguments for and against the ballot initiative during a debate hosted by LIBA. Coby Mach, LIBA's president, said the business group has not taken a position on mayoral term limits. 

Debating against Kathleen Neary, a Lincoln attorney opposing the effort, Spray said term limits would be a check on what he called the “autocratic mayoral system” created under Lincoln’s city charter that gives Mayor Chris Beutler “unlimited authority.”

Executive branch officeholders at the state and national level have been limited in the number of terms they can serve for decades, he added, which restricts their authority and prompts new candidates to seek office while also injecting new ideas into government.

Neary said the Republican-led effort to prevent Beutler, a Democrat, from seeking and winning a fourth term leading Lincoln’s city government, relied upon vague and ambiguous ballot language to advance.

At any time in Beutler’s third term, Republicans could have worked to amend the city’s governing document but instead timed their effort purposely to undermine next spring’s mayoral election, she said.

“If this passes in November, Democrats will be scrambling to put up a candidate against the Republican nominee,” Neary said, because Beutler would be disqualified from appearing on the May ballot.

The mayor's position is officially nonpartisan.

When the state enacted term limits for state senators in 2000, serving members in the legislative branch were not retroactively barred from running for re-election, Neary added.

Spray said the power granted to the Lincoln mayor was unique in the state, however, and not analogous to situations in Omaha or at the statehouse.

He declined to say whether term limits should be enacted in Omaha, where Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican, announced her intention to seek a third term last week, saying Lincoln’s city charter granted Beutler more authority than Stothert has in Omaha.

Citing the 2016 dispute that led Beutler to sue the Lincoln City Council to raise the city's tax levy in order to balance the city’s budget over the council’s vote to lower it, Spray likened Beutler to a “monarch.”

“When you give the mayor unlimited power like a monarch, every once in a while we should change our king, whether they want to be changed or not,” Spray said.

But Neary responded, saying Lincolnites have the chance “to change their king” if they so choose every four years.

“It’s called voting," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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