Callaghan: Public wasted its time coming to speak at a public meeting

Staff WriterApril 13, 2014 

Near the start of Wednesday’s public hearing, chairman Bill Baarsma asked members of “your” charter review committee to introduce themselves.

Other than sounding like a PA announcer introducing “your” Tacoma Rainiers, it was not exactly true. These 15 residents aren’t “your” charter review committee, and they aren’t my charter review committee. They are the City Council’s charter review committee. That’s who hand-picked them, and even that was done in a way that likely violated the state Open Public Meetings Act.

This is more than semantics. The latest attempt to review the city’s basic governing document has been suspected by some as a done deal set up by those on the council who want to shift from a council-city manager form of government to a strong mayor.

Statements already made by a majority of committee members reveal that they likely entered the process with their minds made up. Last weekend, a consensus was reached that it will recommend a strong mayor form of government.

The public was allowed to weigh in only after the committee decided the most fundamental question. Still, most of those who testified opposed the change.

Then it got weird. After the public hearing ended and after the committee reconvened in another room in city hall, some members were dismissive of the very concept of public participation.

There were only 16 people testifying, one committee member said. And most were from “advocacy groups” who took expected positions and offered no new ideas, said others.

It seems odd to scold those who showed up simply because so many others didn’t. It is also insulting to dismiss the views of residents including a longtime League of Women Voters officer, a 16-year city councilman, a major civil rights leader, a member of the 1951 committee that led to the drafting of the first council-manager charter, a leading historic preservationist and a former city councilman-mayor-county councilman.

Committee member Ken Miller rationalized that it is the City Council, not the committee, that should be concerned with public opinion.

“Our recommendations are not the subject of a democratic process in my mind, but rather they are the subject of our thinking,” Miller said. “And so I will be influenced by persuasive arguments and facts. I will not be influenced, and this is just me, by the number of people who weigh in for any one position or the stature of the people who weigh in. That is a political problem.”

Despite assertions that the review committee is driven by data and research, other statements made by Miller reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the council-manager form.

“Look, folks, 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,” Miller said during the second meeting. “That was a feeble defense with no new content.”

Hmmmm. The only person whose job is at risk is current City Manager T.C. Broadnax. Does Miller really think it would be appropriate for a professional city manager to lobby a committee of the City Council directly or secretly rally residents to do so on his behalf?

City managers are professionals educated and trained to stay out of the politics of the cities they are hired to manage. It isn’t his place to lobby the committee, the council or the voters to keep the current form of government.

Yet not only does Miller accuse Broadnax of violating the ethics of his position — with no evidence other than conjecture — Miller then accuses him of doing a lousy job of it.

If contrary views aren’t welcome, why, asked a few committee members, have public hearings at all? Why not cancel the telephone town hall set for Thursday? Why spend tax dollars sending out postcards citywide inviting residents to weigh in “because city leaders want your voice heard?”

The answer might be because the majority of committee members want to appear that they are open to different points of view even though they clearly are not, that they are “your” charter review committee and not the City Council’s.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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