Robert Thoms is better known around Tacoma as a City Council member than a Naval Reserve commander, but it’s the latter title that will take precedence for the next six months as Thoms deploys to Afghanistan as an information officer.
Thoms’ involuntary call-up to active duty in the Afghan capital serves as an important reminder that our longest war, now in its 17th year, remains a disruptive force. Most Americans don’t know the war is projected to cost the U.S. $45 billion in 2018; they don’t notice President Trump ramped up troop strength in Afghanistan from 8,400 to 14,000 last year. But they notice when friends, neighbors and even local government leaders are sent into the heart of danger.
We wish Thoms godspeed as he prepares to deploy next month, and an extra measure of peace for his family.
Meanwhile, we encourage the City Council to appoint an interim replacement, rather than allow the 2nd District to go unrepresented for much of 2018.
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Thoms says he’s fine with whatever the council decides but doesn’t personally see a need for an understudy; he says he can stay in touch via email and phone, as he’s done on shorter military assignments. Standing pat also appears to be the inclination of Mayor Victoria Woodards. But she appropriately invited council discussion and community input, which will take place at Tuesday’s meeting.
District 2 is a diverse, dynamic area of the city that encompasses Northeast Tacoma, the Tideflats, downtown and the Stadium district. Urgent issues this year include the first phase of a subarea planning process that will shape the industrial future of the port, and ongoing scrutiny of a proposed liquefied natural gas plant, now facing permit delays. Emerging day-to-day concerns, from potholes to pop-up homeless camps, also need a responsive council representative in the same time zone.
At-large council members Lillian Hunter and Conor McCarthy offered to look out for Thoms’ constituents while he’s gone. But that’s like having a neighbor keep an eye on your home while you go to Arizona for the winter. It’s much better to have the full attention of a housesitter.
Ann Locsin, a board member of the Northeast Tacoma Neighborhood Council, submitted a letter to the editor Thursday headlined “taxation without representation.” Reacting to a leave of absence with a Revolutionary War cry might be a stretch, but we agree with the overall message of her letter: “We respectfully ask our newly elected Mayor Woodards and Council to reconsider their decision to leave us without representation.”
There’s no shortage of capable people in District 2 who’d thrive in a trial run at council service. And with four new members taking office in January, the City Council has barely started building knowledge and relationships; a fill-in for Thoms wouldn’t have much catching up to do.
The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have churned through so many active-duty leaders, it’s inevitable that government officials in Reserve and Guard units are occasionally summoned to take a turn. In 2003, then-Lakewood City Councilman Doug Richardson was deployed, and John Simpson was appointed to fill his seat — a nice tryout for Simpson, who today is a full-fledged elected Lakewood councilman.
Last month, the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, was activated into Army service to advise an Afghan commando battalion. In keeping with Utah law, a temporary mayor was appointed.
Neither Washington law nor Tacoma’s charter requires appointing a council substitute for Robert Thoms. But it’s the right thing to do for District 2.