The voters of New York City have twice voted by referendum to limit local elected officials to two four-year terms. But now Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to circumvent the voice of the people and pass legislation that would award himself and the City Council a third term in office.

Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party (WFP) – a key member of the opposition fighting the legislation – deftly characterized Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-democratic power grab when he said, “We’ve had two citywide elections on this very topic. Even Hugo Chavez had a referendum and abided by the results. Mayor Bloomberg should do the same.”

The key issue here isn’t term limits – whether one is for or against them – but whether we are a democracy. This is a case study of one man – our own version of an oligarch – trying to rig the rules of the game for his own benefit. He has decided that he’s indispensable in these times of financial crisis, said that a referendum is too “distracting and time consuming,” and moved to ram through “a plan that was hatched with a handful of fellow billionaires and business moguls.”

And it’s gotten quite ugly.

There are allegations that Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have threatened undecided council members, suggesting that committee chairmanships could be lost and funding for districts cut as a consequence of votes against the Bloomberg plan. And the New York Post wrote, “Mayor Bloomberg showered cash [from his slush fund] on key City Council members with the power to kill a term-limits extension bill in the last year.”

The Mayor has also contacted non-profit groups that are dependent on his largesse and city contracts to testify and lobby in support of his plan. One official at a social service group told the New York Times on condition of anonymity, “It’s pretty hard to say no. They can take away a lot of resources.” It might not be buying silence, but it sure makes for some serious reticence in taking on the billionaire mayor/philanthropist.

The Times also reported that leaders of five organizations relying on Mayor Bloomberg’s philanthropic support testified on his behalf last week but none disclosed the mayor’s financial support of their groups.

In addition, both Common Cause and the New York Public Interest Group have filed complaints with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, saying that Mayor Bloomberg gave longtime term-limit crusader and billionaire Ronald Lauder a charter revision commission appointment in exchange for his support for the Mayor’s three-term plan. Two council members also filed complaints, saying that the council’s giving itself a third term violates “a city law that prohibits elected officials from using their positions for private or personal advantage.”

The legislation needs 26 (out of 51) votes on the City Council in order to be approved. Currently, the WFP has the count at: 16 “For Ignoring the Voters and Letting Politicians Decide”; 20 “For Letting the Voters Decide”; and 16 “Unknown/No Public Position”. Joined by community, labor, civic and political groups, the WFP has organized to petition, plaster neighborhoods with posters, run ads, mobilize citizens to contact the Council and demand that this issue be addressed through a referendum if the Mayor wants to change the law. The campaign has created what the Times described as “an unanticipated backlash” but a vote could as early as tomorrow, Thursday, October 22.

If term limits are going to be changed it should be done by the people and for the people, not through the rule of one man who is self-dealing with a city council that has a vested interest in this issue. People should matter, their voices should matter. If the last eight years in this country have taught us anything, it is that the rule of law matters.