Strong mayor? Not for Tacoma

April 13, 2014 

Tacoma’s Charter Review Commission has come up with ideas – some good, some not so good – for amending the city constitution. The biggest one is not so good.

The commission wants Tacoma to switch to a “strong mayor” city government. Some of its members have also floated the idea of switching from a part-time to a full-time council.

The existing council consists of citizen-legislators – part-timers who ideally have day jobs – who enact ordinances and otherwise set policy. The machinery of government is run by a city manager, currently T.C. Broadnax, who is hired and can be fired by the elected council. Administration is thus removed one step from politics. This is a common arrangement among middle-sized cities like Tacoma.

The move to a full-time council would be a mistake.

The effect would be to turn the council into a body of careerist politicians; it would also discourage potential candidates with successful private careers they’d have to leave behind. This would limit the pool of talent and probably produce a City Council with less experience in the private sector.

The commission has, to its credit, offered a couple of ideas to strengthen the existing council: independent staffing and the power to confirm department heads.

As for the executive branch, strong mayors are also common and sometimes work well, depending on a city’s political culture. Under this system, the chief executive is directly elected and ideally employs an assistant with the professional skills of Broadnax. This makes the executive directly accountable to the public — once every four years, at least.

Political operatives and office-seekers tend to be enamoured of the strong mayor model. It smacks of the big time. It also gives partisans and interest groups a powerful new office to politicize.

Therein lies our chief concern.

The city of Tacoma faces constant pressure to spend more on employee compensation at the expense of public services. One reason is that council members are afraid to antagonize municipal unions, which work hard to keep their friends in office.

Employee groups – quite naturally – want bosses who will approve generous contracts. In a heavily Democratic city, any pushback is likely to come from someone like Broadnax, who can’t be dislodged on election day and who can play bad cop during contract negotiations.

If you are a labor boss or industrial baron and want a friendly city hall, you currently have to write nine campaign checks to nine council members – and the city manager still might not like your looks.

With a strong mayor, you only have to write one. In Tacoma, that’s a good enough reason to stick to the form of government we’ve got.

It’s not broken, and it doesn’t need fixing.

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