The Town of Ruston no longer has the Asarco copper-smelting plant that made it a company town for most of a century. It no longer has its smokestack, or its whistle. It no longer has the 300-foot tunnel that connected its townspeople to the Tacoma waterfront.
And now Ruston and its 750 residents are losing one more thing that’s helped define the town since it was born in 1906.
It no longer will be a town.
The five-member Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to change Ruston from a town to a noncharter code city.
“With great fanfare, I say this is a historic night for the Town of Ruston,” said Councilman Jim Hedrick. He used the old terminology without irony, and said there’s no reason why Ruston can’t keep calling itself a town.
In many ways, the reclassification is a paper move intended to give local officials more autonomy and flexibility. The mayor will have veto power over certain City Council actions and more authority over day-to-day operations of the city.
But the symbolic shift to cityhood caught the attention of history buffs and longtime Ruston residents including Karen Pickett. She runs the blog Ruston Home, which celebrates “Small Town America surrounded by Urban Tacoma.”
“It’s been a town for a long time, and we’ve had the scrappy reputation of being an underdog,” Pickett told The News Tribune. “A big part of our identity is our name.”
Mostly, however, she said she wishes the Town Council had sent the decision to the ballot so Ruston residents could gain a thorough understanding of what it means to be a city.
“I feel like the council at least should have put it out for a public vote,” Pickett said.
The biggest distinction between the two forms of government is that towns have the power to do only what state law expressly allows; code cities, on the other hand, can pass ordinances and make policies to do what they want as long as it’s not expressly prohibited by state law.
Lynn Nordby, public policy consultant for the nonprofit Municipal Research Service Corporation in Seattle, described these cities as having “presumptive authority.”
Councilman Lyle Hardin said the change allows citizens the opportunity to push for initiative and referendum powers and could make Ruston less vulnerable to lawsuits.
If community leaders had announced Ruston would cease being a town three years ago, it might have been a much different story.
Ruston’s future was clouded for years by its tight budget, its challenges paying for services and talk of annexation by Tacoma – the city that surrounds it on three sides. Ruston Mayor Bruce Hopkins predicted the town’s reserve funds could be depleted by 2015.
The outlook has improved with this year’s opening of Point Ruston, a large residential and commercial project on the former site of the Asarco smelter, part of which is in the town limits. Meanwhile, the Commencement, a six-story building once planned for condominiums, is being converted to apartments.
With Ruston’s move to cityhood, the ranks of small-town Pierce County shrink to five: Carbonado, Eatonville, South Prairie, Steilacoom and Wilkeson.
Steilacoom town officials see no reason to follow Ruston’s lead. The controls that state law imposes on towns limit the size of Steilacoom’s government and keep it properly focused on providing core services, Town Administrator Paul Loveless said.
And Mayor Ron Lucas said the town label better aligns Steilacoom with the historical character its residents cherish. “I think we’ll just stay where we are,” he said.
Staff writer Christian Hill contributed to this report.