The term limits movement that swept America in the 1990s tapped into a gusher of anti-incumbent angst, a sentiment summed up in a popular bumper sticker slogan of that era: “Throw the bums out!”
Tacoma’s term limits have been around even longer — voters here were in the vanguard when they approved limits in 1973 — and have served the community well. Anyone elected mayor or City Council member can hold one or both offices no more than 10 consecutive years before taking a break in service. This allows for two full four-year terms, plus some wiggle room for when someone is appointed to the council before being elected.
As we see it, these limits strike a good balance. Tacoma leaders can’t dig in long enough to become careerists or make a cozy sinecure for themselves. But they have enough time to develop expertise, govern knowledgeably and curb the influence of unelected city bureaucrats who can wield great power for many years unnoticed.
Now a group of Tacoma activists wants to tinker with term limits in an undisguised ploy to manipulate this year’s mayor’s race. Their ballot campaign amounts to an ad hominem attack on a candidate they don’t like — an untimely attempt to oust Victoria Woodards, a strong contender who announced her run for mayor more than three months ago.
Political maneuvering makes a poor reason to amend Tacoma’s charter, the city’s version of a constitution. But hey, at least they’re being up-front about their intentions.
The push to impose stricter term limits was launched this month by members of the group Save Tacoma Water. To qualify for the November ballot, they must collect valid signatures from at least 12,794 Tacoma voters by early July.
The group’s slogan,“Eight is Enough,” refers to the reduced number of years of consecutive service that would be allowed under their plan. Eight is also the number of years a person would be forced to sit out before returning to elected city office; right now, the charter doesn’t prescribe how long a sabbatical must last.
For a backup slogan, the group might try this: “Don’t just throw the bums out — keep them out!”
The idea behind their effort isn’t the problem (although we might take issue with some details) so much as the timing and the naked opportunism.
Does Tacoma’s charter contain a glaring loophole? Does it allow politicians to skirt term limits by taking a timeout of any length, then restarting the clock at zero? Arguably, yes.
But monkeying around with qualifications for mayor should wait for a nonmayoral election year. Anyone who plays politics, poker, ping pong or other competitive endeavors knows it’s unfair to change the rules while the game is underway.
Save our Water hopes to sink the candidacy of Woodards, a seven-year veteran of the part-time council who resigned at the end of December to focus on running for the full-time mayor job. Had she stayed on council and won the mayor’s post, term limits would’ve barred her from completing a full four-year term. But by bowing out of office for a time, current rules allow her to reset the clock and serve as many as two terms as mayor.
Under proposed Charter Amendment 8, however, Woodards’ mayoral dreams would deflate before a single ballot is cast.
Why do local activists have Woodards in their crosshairs? Among other things, they associate her and other elected officials with a controversial proposal for a methanol plant (now dead) and for supporting a liquified natural gas storage facility (though she’s raised safety concerns more recently).
By bouncing Woodards, they would clear the way for the only other declared candidate, local architect Jim Merritt, who has opposed those projects on the Tideflats.
In blackjack, this would be called trying to stack the deck.
The politics have grown so petty, Save Tacoma Water doesn’t even mention Woodards by name on its website, as if trying to give her the villainous aspect of Lord Voldemort (He who must not be named). Instead, the group refers to Woodards repeatedly as “the Loophole Candidate.”
That label may have some merit. But the appropriate way to close a loophole if you believe one exists — the sportsmanlike way — would be to bring a charter amendment forward in another year or two.
Tacoma voters would do well to withhold their signatures from Charter Amendment 8 petitions, and to reject the measure should it make the ballot — just as they rejected ill-advised term limits amendments in 2008 and 2014.
Meantime, we hope more mayoral candidates, reflecting a mix of experience beyond City Hall, surface before filing week in mid-May.
A parting thought for voters who believe entrenched politicians are intrinsically bad for democracy: Never forget you already have the power to give them the bum’s rush.
At the ballot box. The old-fashioned way.