Callaghan: Debate the best form of city government? It’s what we do

Staff WriterApril 20, 2014 

In his 1973 doctoral dissertation on the history of battles over the form of Tacoma city government – what one political scientist dubbed “regime conflict” — Bill Baarsma described the groups and factions that lined up on either side of the question.

One consisted of those who thought having a professional manager and a nonpartisan city council would be more efficient, help rid the city of vice and corruption and boost its economic growth.

Backers of the council-manager form of government tended to come from the North End, from among business and professional people, the Municipal League, the League of Women Voters and from the city’s Republicans.

And then, like now, the editorial page of The News Tribune supported the council-manager form of government.

The other was made up of people and organizations who thought an appointed manager was undemocratic and was really a disguised attempt to deny power to segments of the city — especially labor, municipal workers, local Democrats and those who lived in South Tacoma.

The charter passed with strong support from the North End, overcoming opposition in the South End and South Tacoma. The year was 1952.

There are a few significant differences between then and now, as Tacoma experiences its latest “regime conflict.” Republicans are much-less obvious within the city limits. Minority groups were not given a voice at all in the 1950s. And the city doesn’t obsess over whether it should be an “open town” that tolerates gambling and prostitution or should crack down to eliminate vice, police corruption and organized crime.

But there are so many issues described by Baarsma that are still being debated that I had to wonder whether all this can ever be resolved and whether Tacoma spends more time – measured in decades – debating it than other communities.

Since earning his doctoral degree in public administration from George Washington University, Baarsma has been a professor who also served as the city’s mayor and is chairman of the current Charter Review Committee. He pointed out the similarities while briefing the City Council on Tuesday. He noted that the biggest issues during a mid-1950s charter review were whether a strong mayor system should be adopted and whether public utilities should have independence from city government.

The main issues this year? The form of government and the independence of the utilities.

When I returned to the city in 1985 after going to college and working elsewhere, I tried to meet with as many of the people in politics and government as I could. Nearly every discussion eventually led to the form of government — whether the council-manager form should be replaced by one with an elected mayor who administers the city.

Baarsma’s academic research makes clear that it had been debated since the early years of the 20th century when voters approved a commission form of government. Under that form, five commissioners — a mayor, a public safety commissioner, a public works commissioner, a finance commissioner and a public utilities commissioner — are elected with each having administrative control over one-fifth of city hall.

It was that form – not a strong mayor form – that voters replaced in 1952 with the current council-manager charter. Even that didn’t end the conflict and may have exacerbated it, he wrote. Just four years later, council-manager opponents forced a citywide vote on a strong-mayor charter. (Baarsma notes that it failed partly because the same plan weakened the independence of utilities, which is a lesson the current committee seems to be heeding).

Just two years after that, city voters approved changes that would have the mayor elected by voters rather than chosen by the other council members.

It ebbs and it flows, depending on the state of crisis or conflict. But that regime conflict never really ends. It is the one constant in local politics.

Not that it isn’t fun and interesting, but I wonder if it’s productive. And I wonder if folks who have moved in more recently – plus those who aren’t as interested – are puzzled by the amount of time and emotion spent on it.

It’s a Tacoma thing, I feel like telling them. You wouldn’t understand.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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