Charter committee skeptical of public views

Many at recent hearing opposed changes to mayor’s role, then committee wrestled with importance of opinions

kate.martin@thenewstribune.comApril 12, 2014 

Most speakers at a public hearing Wednesday told the Tacoma Charter Review Committee they liked the city’s governing structure just the way it is.

Minutes later the committee members walked next door and convened another meeting during which they questioned whether they needed to consider what they had just heard. The public was absent, but the mic was hot.

“Listen to the public? Yeah, we’ve already done that. You’ve all already done that,” said committee member Mark Martinez, according to a city recording of the meeting.

The committee has worked since January on charter modifications, and Martinez said most members have talked with friends, neighbors and colleagues about it.

“If you haven’t, I’d be really surprised,” he said.

A recent draft of the committee’s work shows it is eying a significant overhaul of Tacoma’s government: Instead of a council and city manager leading the city, a mayor and city council would rule, with a hired administrator assisting at the direction of the mayor.

At Wednesday’s public hearing, at least two people spoke in support of that change, but the majority of people who addressed the committee said they did not like the idea.

The city manager’s post should be occupied by a professional experienced in day-to-day city operations, said former mayor Harold Moss and several others.

“The elected mayor and City Council still run this city. If you don’t believe me, you ask the last city manager,” Moss said, referring to Eric Anderson, who was dismissed by the City Council in 2011.

Jerry Thorpe, a former Metro Parks and Port of Tacoma commissioner, told the committee he wants a city manager, “not someone who decides to run for office,” managing Tacoma.

“We’ve seen all kinds of problems in Seattle,” Thorpe said. “People elected mayors who are not qualified to be mayor, but they get elected. Do we want to follow in the path of Seattle? I don’t think so.”

The Tacoma City Council has tasked the 15-member Charter Review Committee with proposing changes to Tacoma’s charter — essentially the city constitution. Proposals are due to the City Council next month, and voters could decide the issues this November.

Late last week, the city mailed 85,000 oversized postcards to every residence and business in Tacoma to advertise Wednesday’s public hearing and the telephone town hall next Thursday. The cost of that mailing: $26,000.

“… City leaders want your voice heard!” the postcard proclaimed in bold purple letters.

But what to do with those voices was apparently up for debate Wednesday night. After the public hearing ended, members of the charter review panel moved to a smaller meeting room to talk about more changes to the city charter.

Chairman Bill Baarsma is heard on the recording noting that no one from the public was present. About nine minutes later, committee member Mabel Edmonds asked: What should we do with the public comments we just heard?

“Tonight we heard from 16 citizens. I suspect we might hear from more on the telephone town hall,” Baarsma said. “I was disappointed in one respect in that there were no new ideas. … What we heard was a number of advocacy groups tonight.”

“Our recommendations are not the subject of a democratic process in my mind, but rather, they are the subject of our thinking,” said committee member Ken Miller.

Committee member Charles Horne offered a dissenting view. He said the people who spoke at the meeting are representative of others in the community who did not show up to speak.

“It’s not about politics or public opinion. It’s about the best possible process we can put forward to the council,” Horne said. While the committee has tried to make objective decisions, “there’s a lot of opinion in our discussions.”

But 16 people are not a representative sample of Tacoma’s residents, Miller argued. Then, in what he later confirmed was a reference to current City Manager T.C. Broadnax, Miller said: “If my job were at risk, I hope I would do a better job of getting my friends and allies to come and stuff a meeting than we saw done tonight.”

“That was a feeble defense with no new content, and I’m unimpressed,” Miller continued. “I know and care about some of those people, but in terms of changing my mind or even convincing me that we should revisit some of our decisions, I heard nothing.”

Edmonds, however, wasn’t ready to let the topic go.

“All I wanted to know is whether or not we planned to listen and incorporate the comments that we hear,” she said. “When you invite people to come to a public hearing, you assume they are going to give you comments, and it doesn’t make a difference to me whether they are new ideas or not.”

Why have a public hearing at all if the committee won’t listen to public comment, Horne said. Why not cancel the upcoming town hall if comments won’t be of value, vice chairwoman Catherine Ushka added.

But Miller said he simply was not persuaded by those who spoke.

“Not being swayed and not listening are two very different things,” Miller said. “… That does not mean I have to change my mind because 16 people rallied to the microphone.”

In an interview Thursday, Miller said it’s the City Council’s job to figure out what’s popular — not his job nor the Charter Review Committee’s.

Broadnax, contacted Thursday about Miller’s comments, rejected the idea that he had tried to stack the meeting.

“If (Miller) believes that, he doesn’t understand the ethical boundaries of what a city manager should and should not do,” Broadnax said Thursday.

Broadnax is a member of the International City/County Management Association, which has an ethics code prohibiting most political activity. “… I’m not a politician. That’s not something I would even think about doing.”

Broadnax said it was the duty of the Charter Review Committee to get people to come to the hearing, not his.

Baarsma said in an interview that, given the city’s efforts to publicize Wednesday’s hearing, he hoped more fresh faces would show, not just the people whose opinions on charter review are already known.

He identified the “advocacy groups” that attended as The Black Collective, the League of Women Voters and Historic Tacoma. He also said he heard “a lot of sentiment about the status quo” at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Harold’s always been a defender of the city manager system,” Baarsma said of Tacoma’s former mayor. “They see a friend in Mr. Broadnax. He’s an active participant in the Collective.”

Ushka said Friday it shouldn’t matter if someone is speaking from an advocacy group.

“They all represent a number of people, and it is relevant,” she said.

On Friday, Martinez said he was trying to move the meeting along when he said committee members had already talked with the public.

“The discussion was ‘do we need to make a decision about the form of government off of the testimony of 16 people?’” Martinez said. “… At the end of the day, the City Council makes their decision on what goes out to the voters.”

Baarsma said that despite the disappointing turnout this week, he looks forward to the telephone town hall, which is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday and will cost the city $4,000 to conduct.

If enough people turn out against changing the form of government then, “that could affect my thinking,” he said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542 kate.martin@thenewstribune.com

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