Tacoma has bigger issues than its form of government

April 20, 2014 

Tacoma must step up and deal with issues critical to its future. Changing our form of government isn’t one of them.

I have worked on Tacoma issues all of my adult life – as a concerned citizen, a City Council member and mayor, and now as a school board member. Like you, I want Tacoma to be the best community it can be. To achieve this we should tackle and deal with the critical issues facing us now.

What are these issues? How to emerge from the Great Recession by creating well-paying jobs for everyone, including young adults. How to attract new businesses to a city with high unemployment and low average property values.

How to overcome a projected $30 million budget shortfall for the city government, including how to better reduce and manage current costs. How to maintain and rebuild an aging and neglected infrastructure, including the potholes and broken pavements that have made some of our streets obstacle courses.

These are the real issues that we must start dealing with now. And we need to confront them as a united community.

Solving these problems will be difficult enough without creating an impression that we have a government in crisis and thereby discouraging new investments. We don’t need to make 2014 a year of division in our community on matters that were laid to rest decades ago and that now appear to be a prime focus of a small number of people more interested in political agendas than in dealing with the hard challenges we actually face.

Is changing Tacoma’s government to a strong mayor with a full-time council really the most important issue facing the future of this city? Apparently, that’s what a number of the city’s Charter Review Committee think. I don’t agree, and I don’t think a majority of Tacomans agree.

What is the cost of a change of government? In reporting to the council recently, a charter committee member said the costs would be de minimis (Latin for, roughly, “too little to worry about”).

Really? Years ago, I had the privilege to work in the governor’s budget office. I think I know budgets. Financing a full-time mayor, a full-time council and a full-time council staff will not cost “too little to worry about.”

What is the cost of a change of government? It cost may be in the low millions, but it still will be in the millions. How will that help the city meet that $30 million shortfall? Shortfalls are not met by increasing spending.

Does our current charter need some fixes? Probably. But does the charter need radical changes? I don’t think so. The current form of government has worked well. The relationship between the city government and its public utilities has worked well.

Some people say: “We need a charter with a strong mayor to get things done.” A mayor’s strength depends less on whether a charter says a mayor is strong than on whether the person elected is strong. Under our current form of government, a mayor who can build teams and partnerships will see the city move forward.

What have we accomplished under the current form of government? We built the Tacoma Dome, cleaned up the Thea Foss Waterway and restored Union Station. We fostered and helped build new museums. We established the University of Washington Tacoma branch campus. We established neighborhood councils. We fought crime.

We the people of Tacoma did these things – and many more – and we did it without the sideshows that parochial politics create.

Tacoma is at a crossroads this year. It can take the lower road that will cause us to bring old fights out of 60-year storage and divide this community in a war over a strong mayor and full-time council. Or it can take the higher road that will lead us to deal with the real, hard issues we need to face and face now: economic development, jobs for well-trained youth, managing the city’s budget nightmare.

Let’s take the higher road.

Karen Vialle, a former mayor of Tacoma, serves on the Tacoma School Board.

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