In the timeless words of “Anchorman” Ron Burgundy, that escalated quickly.
If we needed an exact moment when it was clear public reaction to the potential deal to lease Tacoma’s Click Cable TV infrastructure to the private Kirkland company Wave was off to an unfortunate start, it came Thursday night at Stadium High School during the first of two scheduled public meetings to discuss the proposal.
Some frustration from the crowd was to be expected. There’s a lot of civic pride involved. We may not have everything in Tacoma, but we do own a municipal fiber network, which makes us unique. People are skeptical of leasing it to an outfit like Wave, which is owned by private investors and brings in more than $350 million per year, according to figures provided by the company. People want their voices heard.
But throwing things, in rage and complete disgust, was an unexpected low point — and it provided an exclamation point on a level of pent-up anger rarely seen from a crowd discussing the future of a public utility. Asked to partake in a nine-question round of “instant polling” to help collect feedback, using handheld devices known in the biz as “clickers,” one fed-up Tacoman was pushed over the edge.
And so the clicker got chucked toward the Stadium High School stage where Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Tacoma Public Utilities board member Mark Patterson were attempting to hold things together.
As The News Tribune’s Kate Martin reported, the hurled device “clattered across the floor and slid behind a curtain,” only to elicit a stern admonishment from Strickland. The mayor told the crowd, “In Tacoma, we treat each other with respect and dignity.”
Strickland had a point, which is why it’s time to get this public process back on track. If the Wave deal is right for Tacoma, it’s a decision we need to reach together. This can’t feel like we’re being sold, and the end result can’t appear predetermined.
Unfortunately, since the controversial proposal was unveiled almost two weeks ago there’s been an air of inevitability that’s been hard to shake. “Has the decision been made to go with Wave?” City Councilman Robert Thoms wondered aloud after the proposal, which attempts to pressure Tacoma into a 60-day window for approval, was laid out for the first time.
Thoms isn’t the only one asking that question, and rightfully so.
The encouraging thing is that city officials say a final decision hasn’t been made. For one, the TPU board and the City Council must sign off on it. TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason assured me, “That is absolutely not how we’ve approached it at all. We don’t believe that it’s a done deal.”
That’s good to hear. I hope everyone in TPU’s backrooms agree.
Perhaps the better news, though, is that there’s still time to ramp up the effort to genuinely reach out to the public this deal would directly impact, and engage people in the kind of thoughtful public process this decision deserves.
Only one more public meeting is scheduled: April 23 at the Tacoma Public Utilities auditorium. There should be more, and at least one of those meetings should be in Tacoma’s South End or East Side. TPU should be booking time at Lincoln High School right now.
On another hopeful note, Gleason says, “We’ll have as many meetings as the public wants us to have.”
Let’s get on that.
One other helpful gesture would be for all parties involved to admit that Tacoma won’t be rushed into a decision. “We’ve acknowledged that the 60-day window is not likely,” Gleason says. That’s a reality TPU and the city’s elected leaders should be shouting from the rooftops.
If Wave wants to lease the Click infrastructure for the next 40 years, the company can wait until the deal has been properly vetted by the public that owns that infrastructure. It can wait until all corners of the city have had their fair chance to weigh in.
It’s only right.
And, who knows, doing this right — with respect and dignity for the process — might prevent people from throwing things in the future.