Published on March 4th, 2014 | by Daniel Rahe5
Boiling Point: Tacoma’s Charter Review
The proceedings of Tacoma’s Charter Review Commission have been interesting from the moment it was assembled in January.
The City Charter is a relatively short document — forty pages that outline the structure, elections, and financial policies of Tacoma’s government. It does not define our laws or ordinances, but establishes the process by which they are made, and the titles of the people who will make them. It is, essentially, Tacoma’s Instruction Manual.
The Charter Review Commission is temporary, convened once every ten years to review the contents of Tacoma’s City Charter from January until May. The recommendations developed by this citizen group are then voted on by the public during the next election cycle.
Charters and manuals are inherently dull, but the effects of revising them can be dramatic. Anyone who has kept an eye on this year’s Charter Review Commission can tell that this time, things may not follow the boring pattern of continuity established in previous decades.
Since shortly after World War II, Tacoma has had a “Council-Manager” form of government, in which the City Manager and the Mayor-led City Council essentially share power. The alternative is a Strong Mayor government, which would eliminate the City Manager position.
This year’s Charter Review Commission clearly wants to see fundamental changes to Tacoma’s government structure, evidenced by the formation of a subcommittee to discuss altering our government. According to the Tacoma News Tribune’s Kate Martin, one commissioner, Terri Baker, has stated that the seven members of that subcommittee definitely “have an agenda.”
It seems a bit extreme to even countenance a discussion of dissolution of the City Manager’s position during this time of such great infrastructural need.
Current City Manager T.C. Broadnax is in the business of repair and recovery in a time of severely limited resources, with brick-and-mortar efforts symbolized by the massive projects on Stadium Way and Pacific Avenue, coupled with a renewed emphasis on historic preservation — the kinds of things that shouldn’t fall victim to further politicization. I am guessing he would happily leave broad policy to the Mayor and Council.
Nevertheless, the Charter Commission’s timing to introduce doubt in our current system is right. The leadership of Eric Anderson, who held the office of Tacoma City Manager during the recent financial crisis, stirred up a host of lingering resentments in City Hall. And before Anderson, Tacomans endured the tragic and horrifying Corpuz-Brame scandal. Despite the high marks earned by Broadnax in his recent performance review, his predecessors may have knocked the pilings out from under him.
While Mayor Strickland and the council are appropriately silent on the issue, one can easily imagine how tensions could develop between them and the City Manager’s office. As pointed out in a Tacoma City Club study on the issue of difficulties in Tacoma’s government, the relationship between City Council and the City Manager’s office is often fraught. Communication between City Manager staff and elected officials seems to be the main problem (which may or may not be partially due to the fact that the council is not necessarily a full-time job for most members).
More than once,Tacoma’s City Council has been asked to rubberstamp the actions of the City Manager when their own counsel may have been opposed or unsolicited. Councilmembers can show up at division or commission meetings to express interest in the inner-workings of various developments, but that can often be similar to trying to slow down a train by putting cotton balls on the tracks. The City Manager’s employees, the ones dealing with the day-to-day minutiae and mechanics of the city, control the momentum. In the existing political climate, all the council can do is react and hope their reactions appeal to voters.
These difficulties have been brought into a historic perspective by former mayor Bill Baarsma, who, since 1972, has been parsing an argument about Tacoma’s five decades of Council-Manager governance, whether it has worked as well as its originators claimed, and whose voices it may exclude. This just may be the year Baarsma gets to take his theories to the ballot.
You see, skeptical Baarsma (perhaps he has never succinctly advocated for any particular change, but when a former mayor seems intent on sustaining conversation about mayoral power alterations over the course of decades, it is difficult to call him unbiased) has been appointed by Mayor Strickland to be chairperson of the Commission; furthermore, a simple majority of the Charter Commission — nine of the fifteen seats — were personally selected by City Council. The other six commissioners were chosen out of a pool of applicants from the community at large. The selection committee that interviewed these applicants was composed of the Mayor and three other councilmembers (I was one of the final candidates myself, and had my turn to speak with Mayor Strickland and councilmembers Lonergan, Campbell, and Thoms, but was not selected).
To put it plainly, the Mayor and City Council are definitely interested in Charter discussions, and are probably not ignorant of Bill Baarsma’s structural observations. That is why it seems a little uncouth when the Charter Review Commission is a stacked deck, even if standard procedure was followed.
It would be easy to get the impression that Tacoma’s City Council has, in effect, created a Proxy Council to determine the extent of its own power and the mayor’s. This is a rather significant conflict of interest. If the Council-Manager structure was not openly in question, this would not be an issue.
Now, it is not uncommon for city Charter Review bodies to be appointed by elected officials, but there are other ways of forming such committees. We can safely assume that most other cities aren’t dealing with organized proponents of fundamental structural change, so perhaps some greater sensitivity and discretion could have been exercised in this instance. Instead, the city’s elected officials appear a little too eager to pounce on an opportunity to adjust relations with the City Manager’s office, and, given Baarsma’s involvement, are a little too likely to get a recommendation for fundamental revisions in their favor. There are not a lot of shortcuts to the ballot, but this is certainly one of them.
Originally, Tacoma adopted a charter in 1952 that shifted some responsibility away from elected officials because of endemic dysfunctions at City Hall — corruption and outmoded dealings exposed during the booming Post-World-War II years. Despite Tacoma’s history of scandal, the problems of the past needn’t define the future, and have less to do with the city’s current demographics and needs than we might suspect. The city’s economy has new drivers. The population has changed. And, despite the rantings of The New Takhoman, transparency has improved tenfold. Any citizen can walk into any commission meeting at City Hall and have an immediate impact on the dialog without flashing their wallet or owning a gambling hall.
Sixty years later, it is possible that Tacoma might benefit from an eventual transition to a Strong Mayor format, since it seems reasonable to assign greater accountability to the City’s major decision makers in the form of elections, and possible that such a change could bring new voices into the government process. It would not be the first city to attempt such a change. San Diego recently transitioned to the Strong Mayor structure, and has not fallen into anarchy or insolvency.
I have no quarrel with the Strong Mayor form of government. But I do not think a convincing case has been made for the necessity of such a transition at this time, nor can the Council-Manager system be directly blamed for any ongoing identifiable malady. In the past, Baarsma has noted that the current system creates confusion in the population as to what power the mayor has. Now, in his recent editorial in the Tacoma Weekly, he points to Tacoma’s history as a potential argument for change:
“What I found was that dissention inevitably grew when citizens and important interest groups were consciously left out of the decision-making process. There was a perception by many that important policy discussions were being held in private, that only the North End of town counted and that the city manager was initiating policy and taking on the role of an unelected strong mayor. Even council members committed to the city manager system complained of being considered nothing more than a ‘statutory nuisance.’”
Such a statement, combined with the sub-committee exploring Strong Mayor structure, indicates that change may be in the air.
But where are problems in the community-at-large that require a prescription for systemic change right now? The Council-Manager system is only as exclusionary as the people involved, as is any government. It seems to me that we are only discussing a change because the City Council would prefer to be the ones initiating policy and running the various departments, instead of only hiring the staff and approving ordinances. If such a recommendation makes it to the ballot, will Tacoma’s citizens even understand why we are talking about this? Do communication difficulties at City Hall lead to noticeable disturbances in the daily life of the average Tacoman?
Tacoma is a city defined by its capacity and potential for economic growth. The impediments to that growth are no longer political or cultural, but infrastructural. The economic recovery will only bring us as much success as we can make room for, but we need to prepare efficiently and intelligently. One must question, then, whether either the City Manager or the Mayor and Council have the talent, experience, and skill to prepare for future opportunities unilaterally. I’m not convinced they do. Working together, they might.
Viewed through that prism — that the future is on its way and could pass us by again — it becomes clear to me that a discussion of mayoral power is, at this time, a wasted one. Instead, the Charter Review Commission should be talking about how to institutionally improve relations between the City Manager and the City Council. Perhaps the mayor and council should have a more significant role, but that can certainly be achieved within the bounds of a Council-Manager system.
T.C. Broadnax is the kind of responsive, efficient professional who might be the ideal partner in such an effort (I have worked with his staff on Work/Live land use issues, and found him to be results-oriented and attentive). His reorganization of the departments and budgeting at City Hall showed fondness for functional relationships, and a lack of regard for marginally-effective established patterns. “Who you know” means less now than it did five years ago. As a result, the City Manager’s office is no longer forever in damage control mode, and is simply getting things done. That is what Tacoma needs more than anything.
I am left wondering why this discussion is happening, and I am suspicious of the energy that has been dedicated to the Strong Mayor topic since the Corpuz scandals. There are many ways to deal with accountability issues, and throwing out the whole system ought to be the last resort, something to be avoided if the true goal is to effectively serve the citizens of Tacoma. If the direction at City Hall is so misguided that only changing horses in midstream could remedy it, I am amazed that we seem to be moving forward at all.
(All images courtesy of Tacoma Public Library Image Archive)