Tacoma voters could decide this fall whether to change the city’s charter to include a strong mayor instead of a city manager as the head of the city.
Political consultant Alex Hays, president of the Pierce County Better Government League, said the group will file paperwork Thursday to place a charter amendment issue on the ballot in November.
Tacoma government is currently run by City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who was selected by the elected City Council. The mayor serves as a member of the City Council and does not oversee city departments.
For the item to make it to the Nov. 3 ballot, the Pierce County auditor’s office would need to receive a resolution from the city of Tacoma by early August. In order to get the resolution, Hays said the league needs to collect about 7,800 signatures. He said he is confident his group can meet that deadline.
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That signature requirement is higher than the one facing a group advocating for a $15 minimum wage, which has to collect only 3,160 signatures. That’s because the state law governing signature requirements is different for measures that amend a city’s charter, said Pierce County Elections Manager Mike Rooney.
Hays said the ballot issue seeks to change a few things about Tacoma’s charter, which is essentially the city’s constitution.
First, it would remove the city manager and install a strong mayor. That mayor would run the day-to-day operations of city government, as the city manager does now. Many cities with this form of government also employ a city administrator, who assists the mayor.
The ballot issue would also change the number of City Council members from eight to seven by eliminating one of the at-large positions, Hays said. The change would preserve the council as an odd-numbered body after the mayor is no longer a member. Victoria Woodards currently holds an at-large seat and is in her last term of office. That position could be eliminated when her term expires in 2017, Hays said, and the new form of government would be in place in January 2018.
Finally, terms for the City Council and mayor would change slightly. Currently, someone can serve up to 10 consecutive years as mayor or council member. Voters would be asked to limit City Council terms to two four-year terms. The mayor would also be limited to two terms of four years each.
“This is the level best we can get to a neutral, apolitical transition to the strong mayor system,” Hays said Wednesday.
If voters approve the new system, Hays said legal advice he’s received suggests that existing term limits would not apply to the new mayoral post. That means Mayor Marilyn Strickland could run for two more terms, he said, because the duties of mayor will have drastically changed.
Almost a year ago, the City Council decided 6-2 against putting the strong-mayor issue on the ballot. Council members said they didn’t see a compelling reason to change the form of government.
Hays cited a league-commissioned April poll of 401 likely voters, 53 percent of whom said they would vote for a strong-mayor system.
“A sizable fraction of the public already believes that’s what the form of government is,” Hays said. “People believe in Mayor Strickland, and they think she’s running the city government.”
Of all of the political figures the poll asked about, Strickland is the most recognizable, he said. Only 7 percent of potential voters said they did not know Strickland, whereas 41 percent said they did not know who Broadnax is.
Hays said the Pierce County Better Government League is a civic-minded, nonpartisan organization that seeks to reform government.