The Tacoma City Council will meet Tuesday to discuss whether they should appoint a temporary replacement for Councilman Robert Thoms, who will deploy to Afghanistan for six months as a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Mayor Victoria Woodards, herself a U.S. Army veteran, said she wants the full council to have an on-the-record discussion about how to move forward.
“I want to get everybody in the room to have the discussion, and if it comes out that people feel like they can cover it and Robert can call in enough and be accessible in that way, then I think we would move forward,” she said. “But I want to make sure we’re having a full discussion about it.”
Thoms announced on Tuesday that he had been involuntarily recalled to active duty and would leave for training in early March. Thoms said in an interview announcing his deployment that there would be no appointment to fill his spot while he’s out of the country.
That worried some District 2 residents and members of neighborhood councils who fear their neighborhoods would suffer without representation in the coming months. Thoms’ district includes Northeast Tacoma, the Tideflats, downtown and the Stadium district.
“Obviously, he is involuntarily deployed. There’s nothing he can do about that, and I understand that 100 percent. But I don’t understand why they made the decision not to replace him,” said Ann Locsin, a board member of the Northeast Tacoma Neighborhood Council. She wrote an email to the City Council this week formally asking someone be appointed to fill his spot.
“I think District 2, geographically, we are smack in the middle of these huge decisions and to not have any representation during them is a huge red flag for me.”
I want to get everybody in the room to have the discussion, and if it comes out that people feel like they can cover it and Robert can call in enough and be accessible in that way, then I think we would move forward, but I want to make sure we’re having a full discussion about it
Mayor Victoria Woodards
One of those issues is the Tideflats subarea planning process, which was approved nearly a year ago.
Work won’t start on the years-long planning process until an agreement between the Port of Tacoma, the city and the Puyallup Tribe and potentially other partners is negotiated. The subarea plan is expected to result in a comprehensive and detailed road map for future land use on the Tideflats, which has been the subject of a push and pull between some businesses there and people who want less heavy industry on Tacoma’s waterfront.
Thoms said earlier this week that though he’ll be in Kabul, Afghanistan, he’d stay engaged and be able to keep up with issues in his district and respond to emails. In a news release, the city said at-large council members Lillian Hunter and Conor McCarthy promised to keep a close eye on issues in his district.
But Thoms won’t be at meetings to vote, which bothered Locsin and others who have called for a replacement. Thoms said he could call in to City Council meetings and participate that way “if something big were to happen,” which council members do from time to time when they’re out of town.
Thoms said because he’s going to be gone for a relatively short deployment and a set period of time, he didn’t see the need to appoint a replacement.
“I met individually with my council colleagues just to let them know I was deploying, and there is nothing that requires us to appoint, to my knowledge,” Thoms said. “People asked me what my druthers were, and my opinion of it is I could see the value of doing it and of not doing it, based on the short duration.”
City attorney Bill Fosbre said there’s no recent example of a sitting council member being recalled to active duty. The most comparable incident in recent memory was when Councilman Anders Ibsen took a leave of absence of up to a year to pursue training for the Marine Corps Reserves in 2013. At that time, the City Council appointed Joe Lopez to fill in for him. But Ibsen came back from training early, and Lopez ended up only serving 45 days on the council.
I met individually with my council colleagues just to let them know I was deploying, and there is nothing that requires us to appoint, to my knowledge. People asked me what my druthers were and my opinion of it is I could see the value of doing it and of not doing it, based on the short duration
Councilman Robert Thoms
There are three brand new council members and a new mayor who took their seats in January, Thoms added, and said those new members are still getting oriented.
“I felt at least from the conversations I had individually that the colleagues that I spoke with were like, ‘Well, it would just be a lot of tumult to add to a lot of new people for someone who’s only going to be here for a certain amount of months, knowing you’re coming back and you can participate if you need to,’ and I didn’t disagree with that,” he said.
There is no requirement that the City Council appoint someone to Thoms’ seat while he’s gone, Fosbre said. And as an elected official, Fosbre said Thoms will get full pay and benefits while he’s deployed, citing two opinions by the state Attorney General’s Office. Under state law, his deployment is considered a leave of absence and not a vacancy of his seat, Fosbre said.
City Council members are paid $45,000 annually, and the mayor is paid $100,000.