Tacoma council votes against strong mayor

Charter review recommendation won't go forward

Staff writerJune 17, 2014 

Tacoma City Hall Peter Haley / Staff photographer


The Tacoma City Council voted 2-6 Tuesday against further discussion on changing the city’s charter to include a strong mayor.

However, the vote wasn’t so much against the proposed city charter amendment, but rather the way it came about.

Council members gave many reasons for not advancing the idea to a July 15 meeting when the council will decide what appears on the November ballot. Chief among them were a lack of compelling reasons for change and a concern over how the Charter Review Committee reached its conclusions.

“There’s an innate beauty to the system we have now,” Councilman David Boe said. “… I have great fears that (a form of government change) would not serve Tacoma well going forward.”

Several other items are moving forward for further discussion, including a proposal that would extend term limits for the mayor and council members.

Currently, someone can serve up to 10 consecutive years as mayor or council member. The council is considering asking voters to keep the 10-year limit for council members while giving an additional two terms to council members who become mayor.

The council also wants to continue discussing whether to require council confirmation of new Tacoma Public Utilities directors, followed by reconfirmation every two years.

“It is reasonable that the highest paid employee in the city has to answer to the City Council,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. TPU Director Bill Gaines earned $323,000 last year.

Tuesday’s discussion was part of the city’s once-a-decade process to consider changes to the charter that outlines how the government operates.

To date, most of the discussion has revolved around the city’s form of government. In April, the Charter Review Committee recommended by a 9-5 vote a change from the current form governed by a city council and city manager to one ruled by a mayor and city council with a hired administrator assisting the mayor in managing city business.

Councilman Joe Lonergan said he is troubled by the way the Charter Review Committee reached its recommendation.

“This is one of those issues where the process, at least from my perspective, was challenged,” Lonergan said, in reference to an April meeting of the charter committee in which members were dismissive of the public comment they had received minutes earlier at a public hearing.

Even without that misstep, Lonergan said, the committee’s vote to recommend a strong-mayor form of government “was far from unanimous. It was a very split decision with strong arguments on either side.”

Strickland said she was disappointed with some of the information she received from the Charter Review Committee. For instance, she had asked for pro and con statements for each proposal and did not receive them.

Council also asked for a fiscal note and none was presented. Strickland said a rough staff analysis showed a yearly cost of $500,000 to $1.5 million to change the form of government to the one the Charter Review Committee suggested.

“I was expecting a thoughtful, balanced discussion,” Strickland said Tuesday of the charter committee. “What was conspicuously absent for me was how do the residents benefit from this? How do the businesses benefit from this? … I heard a lot about accountability, as though it doesn’t exist now.”

Councilmen Ryan Mello and Anders Ibsen were the only council members to vote to move the strong-mayor proposal forward. Mello called it “the best of both worlds.”

“You have a very experienced manager and you have the ability of having a very visionary leader,” Mello said. “I think it is well thought out with proper checks and balances.”

Voters still might get a chance to decide. Alex Hays, a political consultant, confirmed Tuesday that he has talked with people who are interested in collecting signatures for a strong-mayor ballot issue next year.

“We will see what actually happens,” he said. “We will evaluate the effect of the current vote and form a work group.”

Also not advancing for further consideration is a proposal by Councilmen Marty Campbell and Boe that would have used public money to finance city campaigns for office. The council voted 3-5 against further consideration.

The issue is not necessarily dead. The council could add an advisory vote, which asks voters what they think on a topic without mandating action.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

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