Published on June 19th, 2014 | by Daniel Rahe0
Out, brief candle: Tacoma charter review in memoriam
As reported by Kate Martin in the June 17 edition of the Tacoma News Tribune, the 2014 review process for Tacoma’s City Charter has effectively come to a close. Of the many items considered in this decennial review, the one that drew the most blithe fervor and peevish rhetoric was a proposal to change the City’s form of government. Though a few sundry recommendations regarding Public Utilities and term limits may yet reach voters (as detailed in this excellent summary by Exit133) City Council has voted to keep the contentious recommendation to end the current Council-City Manager system off the November ballot.
Tuesday’s 2-to-6 vote on the Change of Government recommendation was a fittingly unceremonious end to a debate of structural impacts in Strong Mayor systems and Council-Manager systems that could have been enlightening but was instead stunted and often bizarre.
The question of whether Tacoma is well served by a City Manager form of government is vital, and it surely will be raised again in the next Charter Review process; but if proponents of change were hoping to get more steam behind their cause in 2014, they were cruelly disappointed.
From start to finish, the 2014 Tacoma Charter Review was a bit wobbly. In December, Mayor Strickland made the questionable choice of appointing Bill Baarsma to chair the Charter Review Commission. Baarsma has served as Tacoma’s mayor and has famously spent 40 years giving the stink eye to Tacoma’s Council-Manager format. It is alarming that no one anticipated the blemish this appointment put on the appearance of impartiality.
A few weeks later, City Council drew fire from the News Tribune for its questionable Commissioner selection process. The Tacoma Weekly opined that the North End was overrepresented. Then, Bill Baarsma wrote a strange editorial for the Tacoma Weekly that said nothing intelligible, but between trite sentiments, hinted at his aspirations for change. All the while, Commissioners insisted that the Change of Government question would be considered without bias, which seemed rather optimistic to me.
On the whole, the 2014 Charter Review was a circus of political incoherency, complete with apology letters and half-hearted mea culpas. But everyone involved had to pretend it was admirable and sane because this is a small town and we all need each other in one way or another, whether we like it or not. While that may be a mean-spirited thing to say, it is important to consider, because if a Change of Government option had been made available to the voting public in November, no one can predict its chances of passing. And if it might indeed have a chance of passing, a bungled committee process is a shitty waste of a rare opportunity.
If the selected commissioners hoped for a rigorous and balanced discussion of a diverse array of charter proposals, they were probably dismayed by the preponderance of ink spilled on the issue of Tacoma’s mayoral situation. But local media and activists can hardly be blamed for their preoccupation with the topic. The Strong Mayor argument has been a political football in Tacoma for years, and it was bound to dominate the conversation. Baarsma’s involvement at such a key level only served to emphasize that.
These imbalances were troubling enough, but were improbably exceeded by the Commission’s political tone deafness. As the Charter review process rumbled forward, it became clear that some commissioners found public comment to be a bit annoying. Input was dismissed by Baarsma and commissioner Ken Miller as the opinions of “advocacy groups” — an hilarious aspersion that conjures lobbyist parasites rather than the volunteers and community activists who showed up at City Hall to talk about Tacoma’s government. An excerpt from the Commission’s minority recommendations attests to this:
The majority of the scheduled testimony was from elected or appointed officials versus testimony from all echelons of our community i.e., community activists, neighborhood council members, students, voters without a conflict or political interest, or business leaders… When we finally received input from these groups via town meetings it was quickly marginalized by several committee members.
While I can understand Baarsma’s preference for input from less politically active portions of the population, my own experience as a city commissioner confirms that voluntary informed policy opinions tend to come from individuals involved in municipal activity of one sort or another. In Tacoma, that kind of feedback might be the only kind you get as a city official, especially in regard to issues as broad and high-concept as Form of Government.
Despite best efforts and thorough statistical research by the contingent of reasonable commissioners, meaningless demagogical rhetoric entered the debate early. Both the Strong Mayor and Council-Manager structure are inherently democratic, but proponents of Strong Mayor initiated a comparison of degrees of democracy. It was a Democracy-Off!
There was a lot of discussion about accountability, mostly focusing on whether the threat of elections is a more effective deterrent to wrongdoing by officials than any other check or balance at the public’s disposal (spoiler alert: It is not). Some of the commentary was downright cringe-worthy. Some compared a change in Tacoma’s mayoral power to our nation’s war for independence, clearly underestimating the pissing distance between Tacoma and anything so grand as revolutionary thought.
Given that we recently experienced a national fiscal meltdown and a city budget problem of depths that may or may not yet be fathomed, one might expect that significant change in governance be discussed in terms of cost. That was not the case. No solid estimate of budget allocations for such a transition was ever given, and without strenuous cooperation from a City Manager’s office that was legally barred from the discussion, it is unlikely that any such estimate would have been worth the paper it was printed on. According to the mayor, a “rough staff analysis” put the figure between $500,000 and $1.5 million. Again, worthless numbers, but even so, where would the money come from? We have a giant totem pole to fix first, goddammit.
There is some significant political will surrounding a change to Strong Mayor governance in Tacoma. That, in the end, City Council opted not to put the issue on the ballot suggests they wanted to distance themselves from the process and move on.
This is especially telling because there is no evidence that anyone took umbrage with the appointment of Baarsma in the first place. From the outset, everyone knew where this drive was headed, but the process was so discombobulated, no one could carry the ball into the endzone.
When we next review Tacoma’s charter in 2024, it would be wise to anticipate that the Change of Government issue will be at the top of the docket and prepare accordingly.
We cannot treat an extraordinary charter review as if it is subject to ordinary process. We should not handle a once-in-a-lifetime decision with the same probity we assign to a once-every-decade decision. Allowing the City Council to appoint the majority of the seats on the Charter Review Commission may be well and good in most instances, but the practice ought to be questioned when the nature of the council’s role is under consideration.
The current appointment process, which is designed to gather the most informed and qualified citizens in each district, also favors the politically ambitious and the well-connected (because those are the kinds of people who will ingratiate themselves to elected officials).
When such fundamental matters as mayoral form are on the table, it would be sensible to complement winky council appointments by drawing representatives from the 23 existing city boards and commissions as well. Though they are also appointed by the council, these boards offer a broad and holistic understanding of charter impacts, tempered by their working interaction with the Council and the City Manager. This is a fairly neat solution to the double-bind our non-elected officials experience during Form of Government reviews: though rightly prevented from participating in political discourse, the unique complexities and responsibility of the City Manager’s office ought to be addressed by individuals who are deeply familiar with it.
Live and learn, I guess.
By the time the Charter Review Commission had completed its recommendations and passed them along to the Mayor and City Council, Tacoma’s elected officials must have been weary and a little embarrassed, as if they’d been playing a schoolyard game of “Telephone” and couldn’t bring themselves to repeat aloud the distorted words whispered in their ear.
If not for all the malaise that now surrounds the Charter Review, a viable ballot issue could have emerged. But the recommendation for change, which once seemed so promising, is pretty well dead. There is no one in particular to blame, and Tuesday’s vote was a political shrug. As Mayor Strickland put it, “I was expecting a thoughtful, balanced discussion. What was conspicuously absent for me was how do the residents benefit from this? How do the businesses benefit from this? …I heard a lot about accountability, as though it doesn’t exist now.”
Next time, I hope we get the thoughtful, balanced discussion Tacoma’s charter deserved this year.
(All images courtesy of Tacoma Public Library. Featured image is of Tacoma City Councilman Frank Stojack, a nationally famous professional wrestler, in 1954)