It’s not a sign of conspiracy.
It’s not a representation of who really holds all the power in city government.
It’s not even particularly unusual.
But, in the tradition that has become Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s annual delivery of the State of the City address to a group of paying attendees, at a lunch co-sponsored by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, the optics are … how do I put this gently?
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Less than ideal.
In charging admission to see the mayor’s speech — $40 for the general public, $25 with a student ID — it’s easy for the average citizen to get the impression that it’s a closed-rank affair. Broadcasting the speech on TV Tacoma doesn’t completely erase this, nor does giving it a snappy Twitter hashtag (last year’s was #253SOTC).
Perhaps where things get tricky is how the speech — which this year will happen Feb. 8 at the Hotel Murano — is billed. By branding it the mayor’s the State of the City address, it suggests a shared, citywide ownership — and one that seems at odds with the ticket price and cozy Chamber of Commerce affiliation.
Perhaps where things get tricky is how the speech – which this year will happen Feb. 8 at the Hotel Murano - is billed. By branding it the mayor’s the State of the City address, it suggests a shared, citywide ownership – and one that seems at odds with the ticket price and cozy Chamber of Commerce affiliation.
The billing also invites comparisons to how mayors from other cities conduct their State of the City addresses. Like, for instance, Seattle, where the annual speech is delivered in open council chambers, free to anyone who makes their way to City Hall and manages to get a seat.
Benton Strong, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s communications director, points out that the Emerald City’s tradition is enshrined in Seattle’s charter, which directs the mayor to “communicate by message to the Council a statement of the conditions and affairs of the City” … “annually at the third regular meeting of the City Council in February.”
Still, in Tacoma, even with our less formalized approach, there’s room for improvement. And the good news is that it doesn’t necessarily need to involve starting from scratch or completely scrapping the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber’s involvement.
For an example of how a State of the City address can easily be made more inclusive and accessible in the third most populous city in the state, one need only look east of the mountains, to Washington’s second most populous city.
In Spokane, Mayor David Condon will deliver his annual State of the City address Feb. 10. And, just like in Tacoma, Condon will speak to a group assembled in part by the local chamber of commerce — in this case, Greater Spokane Incorporated. For chamber members, the cost of admission will be $30. For non-members, the event will run $55.
In other words, the audience for Condon’s speech, and the accompanying pomp, circumstance and ticket price, will be similar to Strickland’s.
But Brian Coddington, the Spokane mayor’s director of communications, said Condon’s address, like in years past, will be only one part of a larger State of the City rollout.
It’s an approach Condon has been perfecting for the past five years, Coddington explains. In addition to his formal delivery of the State of the City, the mayor has made a practice of traveling to local libraries and community centers to deliver what Coddington describes as a “less formal presentation,” designed to be “more of a conversation.” In years past, each of these events has drawn between one and two dozen people, according to Coddington, while a corresponding State of the City “telephone town hall” has helped the mayor reach 6,000 to 10,000 people.
Coddington, who anticipates that Condon will participate in a “half dozen to eight” such free events this year, says the idea is to make Spokane’s State of the City festivities a “big push for engagement,” where the mayor, through community conversations, is able to share his vision for the city and spend just as much time listening to residents. Digital media, he says, will play a big role in helping the mayor connect with the masses.
Two years ago, Condon also replicated his State of the City address, for free, at a local high school — which Coddington says roughly 100 people attended.
It was a new way to engage the audience. A new way to really get people involved and excited about city government. ... In city government, there are people who are … heavily involved, and you hear from them quite often. This is a way to broaden that audience.
Spokane Communications Director Brian Coddington
“Mayor Condon was looking for a way to make it more accessible to people, and give it a little bit more legs,” Coddington says. It was with this objective in mind that the Spokane mayor turned his annual State of the City address into a “road show of sorts,” he says.
“It was a new way to engage the audience. A new way to really get people involved and excited about city government,” Coddington says. “In city government, there are people who are … heavily involved, and you hear from them quite often. This is a way to broaden that audience.”
And here’s the kicker:
“It works really well,” he says.
Tacoma should take note. While appearances aren’t everything, they are something.
And the appearance of Tacoma’s State of the City address could benefit from a makeover.