Charter Review panel suggests strong mayor for Tacoma

Changing the form of Tacoma’s government is group’s main recommendation; council, voters will get say

Staff writerMay 7, 2014 

When Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland asked Charter Review Committee members Tuesday to explain in a sentence why a mayor should be in charge of running the city, she got equal helpings of support and dissent.

Bill Baarsma, chairman of the committee, said shifting administration from an appointed city manager to the elected mayor would allow “focused leadership for the city of Tacoma.” Gary Brackett said the change would provide “an accountable leader.” Justin Leighton offered another benefit: “Direct accountability to the voters.”

But Mabel Edmonds, who authored a minority report critical of the committee’s majority recommendation to change the city’s form of government, said the same advantages apply to keeping the power structure as is.

“You can have leadership. You can have accountability. You can have all of those things with the current form — and I think we do,” Edmonds said.

Terri Baker, another author of a minority report, said: “The only advantage I see is clarity of organization. There is a question among some voters of who runs things. That’s a matter of education.”

The 15-member committee has held nearly 60 public meetings since January to craft revisions both major and minor to the city’s charter.

With this week’s handoff of the committee’s report, it is now up to the council to review the proposals, listen to the public and possibly make its own suggestions for amending the city’s foundational document. Voters will have the final say in a November election.

The proposed change to the city’s form of government drew the most questions of council members and the mayor Tuesday.

The city is now governed by what is called the council-city manager form of government. But nine of the 15 committee members said they wanted to give more power to an elected mayor assisted by a chief administrative officer and to create a smaller, seven-member City Council.

The city now has eight council members and a mayor. An appointed city manager handles day-to-day city affairs.

Brackett said he favored the shift of power to the mayor because “although Tacoma now enjoys excellent management, it has not always been so.”

The form of government change was among more than three dozen suggested changes, not all of which are likely to reach the ballot this fall, Baarsma said recently.

More than a dozen “housekeeping recommendations” would change the charter to comply with state law. One proposal would change all male-centered language in the charter, such as “councilman,” to a gender-neutral alternative. Other changes would safeguard the Landmarks Preservation Commission and neighborhood councils by adding them to the city charter.

The charter’s section on Tacoma Public Utilities garnered several suggested amendments. Term lengths for appointed utility board members would shrink from five years to three, and board members could serve only three terms. There are no term limits currently.

Another charter revision would require an annual performance evaluation of the utility director, with reconfirmation by the utility board every two years.

But the biggest change would put a strong mayor at the head of city government. In the strong mayor system, the mayor would have veto power over the council, would give an annual state of the city address to the council and the council would have investigatory and subpoena power.

The City Council would confirm the mayor’s appointments, could override a mayoral veto by a two-thirds vote and could remove the mayor under special circumstances.
Other proposals would strengthen the power of the current City Council even if the form of government remains the same. Those proposals include:

 • Allowing the council to confirm the city manager’s appointment of department directors

 • Authorizing the council and not the city manager to appoint the city attorney

 • Allowing the council to hire its own staff members instead of relying on those assigned by the city manager

The City Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss amendments to the charter during 3 p.m. sessions May 20 and June 3.

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

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