Right now, for the first time ever, Tacoma can choose its form of government on purely civic grounds. No crisis, no personal attack. Simply a decision on whether a city manager or a strong mayor can better lead us into the future. The opportunity won’t last long.
A refresher on forms of government may help. The manager-council form emphasizes professional management. The City Council sets policies and chooses a manager, who carries them out.
The strong mayor system balances power between elected executive (mayor) and legislative (council) branches. The council still sets policies, but the mayor can also take initiative.
Tacoma has an unusual hybrid form: a manager and a full-time mayor. All city employees report to the manager, but the mayor leads the council rather than simply chairing meetings for a year and handing the gavel to another council member.
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We’re not here to debate forms of government, though; instead we want to capture an opportunity.
This moment is unique in two ways. First, we’re not reacting to scandal as in the 1950s when Tacoma adopted the city manager system. Previously we had a commissioner system; the people elected to govern the city also managed departments such as police and utilities.
The commissioner system was a little light on checks and balances. Tacoma became so notorious that in 1951 state Sen. Albert Rosellini convened hearings on our police corruption. The city needed change, fast; in 1952, voters changed to a manager form of government.
In 2016 we don’t have to put out any fires. We can assess the form of government with cool heads, discussing pros and cons instead of resolving a crisis.
These next weeks are unique in another way: We can avoid the complication of personalities. Both the mayor and the city manager are leaving: Mayor Marilyn Strickland at the end of 2017 due to term limits, City Manager T.C. Broadnax in the near future to take the same job in Dallas.
Past discussions of the form of government inevitably become judgments on incumbents. Now we can tee up a purely civic conversation. This isn’t about the mayor or manager, or the job they’ve done. (I think they’ve done well, by the way.) It’s about the structure that’s best for the city in the decades ahead, about how satisfied we are.
For the first time we can match the form of government to our hopes for the city’s future, applying political science instead of politics and personalities. Here’s how it could work:
Instead of searching for a new manager, the City Council takes two actions: appoint an interim manager from among department heads in the city and create a ballot measure on the form of government, to be voted on before the candidate filing deadline in June.
A civic organization — City Club, for example — could convene a series of conversations about the ballot measure, making sure the arguments for and against are clearly understood. The media could collaborate in this civic education.
Then in the spring, Tacoma would decide. Then people interested in running for mayor or council would know in which type of government they’d serve. And, if voters keep the manager system, the council could recruit candidates without the cloud of possible system change discouraging top performers from applying.
This won’t be an easy thing to do. Despite their own preferences, council members would have to put the voters’ view above their own. They would run the risk of change and of moving from one imperfect system to another, though imperfect in different ways.
But they could also launch a marvelous civic debate free of the taint of scandal or the weight of personalities, a debate about the future of the city itself.
Ken Miller served on the 2014 Tacoma Charter Review Committee, which recommended placing the strong-mayor form of government on the ballot.