As of February 13, Tacoma has a new City Manager – Mr. T.C. Broadnax. He comes to our city from San Antonio, Texas, carrying with him hope for an innovative breath of fresh air. The current City Council has expressed an eagerness to work with him and move beyond the debacles that weighed down the last months of his predecessor’s service.
Mr. Broadnax now rests his elbows on the same desk Eric Anderson occupied only last year. After the recent harrowing city budget shortfalls and subsequent layoffs, which came close on the heels of more than one minor scandal, it is clear that the denizens of City Hall long for momentum that feels hopeful and fresh.
Like many concerned citizens of Tacoma, I frequent our lovely city building. I watch Council meetings on streaming video. I follow Peter Callaghan and Kathleen Cooper on Twitter (as should you). If there is one thing I’ve learned in all my reading and opinion-sculpting, it is that Tacoma’s government, like most others, is all but impervious to dynamism. A stable, responsive government is process-driven, governed by protocols that perpetuate those systems to future administrations.
It would be naive, then, to believe that the exit of Anderson and the arrival of Broadnax signifies some substantive change in the short-term fortunes of Tacoma. After all, influential and key colleagues of Anderson’s are still at work in the City’s daily administration. City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli, who consulted on many of Mr. Anderson’s more controversial proceedings, is still in place. The Director of Economic Development, Ryan Petty, who worked with Anderson on the City’s budget and business relations, still holds his position. The capital initiative projects that drive policy discussions – many of which were spearheaded by Anderson and his team – remain the same.
Knowing this, should we expect to see a change? And really, do we believe that Eric Anderson is fully culpable for all he’s been blamed for?
Communication At The Crossroads
Though Mr. Anderson certainly made some decisions I continue to object to, I get the sense that Tacoma’s self-perception changed noticeably during his tenure, from almost-provincial thinking to more metropolitan values, while the economy lurched from bombastic growth to impotent paralysis. Contending with an economic catastrophe is a daunting effort by itself, certainly; but that effort must have been complicated in a host of ways by Tacoma’s cultural shift. Despite the departure of some of our most reliable economic engines – such as Russell Investments– Tacoma began to look at American cultural meccas and say, “We can have what they have – In fact, we already do.”
Tacoma began to see itself as a city that had something to offer to the world, but the restrictions of budgetary and commercial reality created unmistakable tension. As the chosen Administrator, Eric Anderson was compelled to tame these dueling forces. But he probably never recognized the gravity or meaning of either.
Throughout his term, even upon his exit, Anderson drew praise for his administrative skill. He knew how to prod the machine of bureaucracy toward definable outcomes, and did so with the assured ease of a poker player. And like a good poker player, he offered little showmanship or diplomatic fanfare. In fact, his office operated with such quiet independence that even the City Council was too frequently caught off guard by its activities.
The $32 million gap in Tacoma’s general fund was one such surprise – one that is very difficult to justify. But every story has two sides. Perhaps concerns about the City’s budgetary problems and dwindling reserve fund were relayed to the Council, but it seems no adequate preparation or discourse had occurred. Despite Anderson’s seemingly careful management, past city officials, such as former Finance Department Director Steve Marcotte, have criticized his handling of the budget situation in almost incredulous terms – criticisms which resembled those levelled at him when long hidden and vital details of the Zina Linnik investigation were revealed, catching the council painfully off-guard, with no acceptable explanation.
Sending a Message
Even if these communication deficits had not been an issue, a damaging lack of diplomacy was plainly evident during the uproar over the demolition of the Luzon Building. Clearly, the historic structure held great symbolic importance to a significant portion of Tacoma’s population, but only the slightest grudging recognition of that sentiment came from the City Manager’s office. He was similarly dismissive of public preservation concerns when the old City Hall building was threatened by catastrophic water damage.
A few years after the Luzon came down, Anderson accepted a pay raise when he had just negotiated pay cuts for most City employees, surely aware the public reaction would be sharply critical.
Political conflict obscures the line separating sensationalism and reality – and Eric Anderson was party to his share of conflict, especially in the last year of his service here. It is likely that there are logical, or at least explainable, reasons for many of his so-called “failures”. But Eric Anderson doesn’t seem interested in defending or explaining himself. He isn’t friendly with the media, hasn’t done interviews, and seems to have simply dropped off the Tacoma map.
Maybe he’s wise to stay away. It has been clear for nearly a year that Eric Anderson was being “endured” and not necessarily supported by the City Council. When once the Council and City Manager’s office would have dealt with public relations foibles by closing ranks and tightening lips, it seemed they abandoned him to justify himself. There is no denying that the united front began to break down. Anderson became quiet and the City Council, buoyed by the increasing charm and charisma of David Boe, Ryan Mello and Marilyn Strickland, did not. In the meantime, Anderson perhaps became an unwitting symbol of Tacoma’s perceived “knock it down or pave it over” past.
Volume and image have been more crucial to this situation than many would like to admit. As the economy contracted, traditional media structures in Tacoma also broke down. The Tacoma News Tribune shrank, and when it did, the city lost decades-worth of background understanding and perspective. For a time, the Weekly teetered on the edge. The once methodical and disciplined voice of investigative and political journalism was too often replaced by disorganized, desperate, panicked, rushed and often demagogic reporting. Blogs like Exit133 and FeedTacoma stepped in to provide additional perspective, but perhaps exacerbated a news cycle dominated by earnestness rather than authoritative coverage.
Members of the City Council adapted to the new media landscape with varying degrees of success, while Eric Anderson seemed content to operate as if nothing had changed. He had no recognizable voice and no connection with the engaged public. Contentious issues such as the paid parking program and the ClearChannel digital billboard standoff attracted enormous public engagement in 2010 and 2011, but only the City Council showed even a little willingness to speak as a public ally. Everyone else – including Anderson himself – conveyed only that their hands were tied. The act of inviting public comment began to seem like little more than a charade.
Any citizen with time and persistence can track the majority of city business by inspecting public records and attending meetings at City Hall. So perhaps I would not go so far as to say that Eric Anderson failed to be transparent as City Manager. But even in a culture dominated by documentation, Tacoma’s government was suffering a breakdown in communication. As a result, the media and community were left only to make wild assumptions based upon disjointed (or absent) messaging. The lingering absence of satisfying answers is disturbing.
The citizens of this community are committed to making Tacoma a place people choose to live – not somewhere they end up. This is evidenced by the huge push for public transit, street vendors, smart development, local business support, historic preservation and vibrant culture. This momentum shows no signs of abating, and our City officers must make clear to us what is possible, what is inevitable, what will be prioritized and what will be postponed. We will have to hope for a government that can cooperate effectively internally while finding genuine ways to solicit public input.
The departure of Eric Anderson does not mend the complex dysfunctions at Tacoma City Hall, but maybe it is the first step toward that kind of a future. Or maybe it was only a step.
Graphic by Daniel Rahe
Photographs by Alicia Wilkinson