Peter Callaghan: Talk, but no action on Tacoma’s form of government

Staff WriterJune 19, 2014 

That’s it?

After all the give and take, back and forth, point and counterpoint, accusation and denial, Sturm und Drang over Tacoma’s form of government, we might end up with status and quo?

That’s kind of anti-climactic. Most of the talk since a special charter review committee was appointed in December was about whether Tacoma was ready for a strong mayor. Sixty-two years after adopting the current form in which an elected council hires a professional city manager, should city voters be asked to consider a change?

The end result was thought to be a done deal.

Yet Tuesday, a majority of the City Council decided not only that it didn’t favor the switch but that voters should not be presented with that option.

In what might be the nicest thing ever said about a form of municipal government, Councilman David Boe said: “There’s an innate beauty to the system we have now.”

Well, there’s always next decade.

The decision doesn’t mean voters won’t have a chance to tinker with the city’s constitution in the fall. It might even be that the relationship among strong-mayor and some other proposed amendments is what caused the council to balk.

People who care about the inside baseball of city government worry about how voters might react when presented with a long list of seemingly unrelated charter amendments.

Former Mayor Bill Baarsma, who was chairman of this year’s charter review committee, knows his history. In 1973, as a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, he wrote his dissertation on the story of Tacoma’s various forms of government.

And one lesson explored by Baarsma is how one issue can drag down another. Just four years after voters adopted the council-manager form, they rejected a change to strong mayor — a defeat Baarsma blames on another amendment that would have weakened the political independence of Tacoma Public Utilities.

That’s likely why the committee left the utilities mostly alone, preferring to let the change in form of government stand alone at the top of the agenda.

The council members among Tuesday’s majority might have employed the same strategy though with the opposite result — jettisoning strong mayor so as not to drag down amendments they care more about. Those would be gaining more control over the utilities and extending term limits for council members who are later elected mayor.

The majority on the review committee feared that messing with Tacoma Public Utilities might drag down a strong mayor amendment, and a majority on the council feared strong mayor might drag down gaining more control over the utilities.

To each his or her own albatross.

Inevitably, when someone doesn’t want to do something for whatever reason, they blame process. And there was certainly much in this charter review process to cause concern.

But here too, as with beauty, faulty process is in the eye of the council member.

Councilman Joe Lonergan said he was reluctant to support the change of government amendment because the committee made disparaging remarks about city residents who opposed strong mayor — remarks made when committee members thought no one was listening (but were recorded).

And he was concerned that the vote of the committee was deeply divided.

If the process was troubled, though, it was troubled from the beginning. To hurry the appointment of the committee members so as to give them enough time to act this year, Lonergan polled members of his committee via email and phone. He then used that information to cull the field of applicants who would be interviewed.

But by making a decision — which applicants to eliminate — outside of a public and open meeting, Lonergan likely violated the state open public meetings act, which might have cursed this process in its cradle.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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