I have had the privilege of serving as a member of two Tacoma Charter Review Committees (CRC) – in 1973 and again this year. The CRC in 2014 is an advisory committee as it was in 1973. It is not a commission, as it has been described.
The Pierce County Charter Review Commission, on the other hand, is an elected body that has the authority to put charter changes directly on the ballot without County Council involvement. There is a big difference between a charter committee and charter commission.
Second, the CRC is not considering the option of a traditional “strong mayor” system. Instead, the CRC followed the recommendations of the National Civic League, a good government group, in proposing a mayor-council-chief administrative officer (CAO) model.
The CAO in such a system is not a political chief of staff but a professional public administrator with the same qualifications as a city manager.
In this system, the City Council confirms the mayor’s pick for CAO. That official goes through a periodic performance review, conducted by the City Council, similar to that of a city manager. This is not found in any traditional “strong mayor” systems.
It has been argued that there is great risk in giving Tacoma voters an opportunity to elect a mayor with chief executive authority. The result, critics argue, will lead to the office being taken over by union bosses and the Democratic Party machine; budgetary chaos will be the result.
Budgetary chaos? Didn’t Tacoma recently face near fiscal bankruptcy after the six-year reign of the former city manager?
Pierce County government, on the hand, is led by a directly elected chief executive who happens to be a Democrat.
While Tacoma’s city manager was moving budget funds around like pieces on a chess board, all the while misleading the part-time council, the elected county executive was making tough budgetary decisions to keep the books balanced. The executive’s decisions were then scrutinized by a fully staffed, independent county council.
I ask: Which executive was the more prudent fiscal leader during the recent economic crises?
Finally, it has been argued that you can fire a city manager on the spot but you have to wait four years for an election or resort to a recall for removing a mayor.
Of course, no Tacoma city manager has ever been “fired on the spot.” Three managers have been fired but only after six months, six years and 13 years in office.
In point of fact, mayors can be removed by a vote of the city council in extreme circumstances – and no severance is paid as a result. This provision has been in the Seattle City Charter for a century and has served as an adequate check.
The question is: How can our city move forward in the decade ahead? How can it become a regional leader in the South Sound? An elected mayor who has the authority to create a vision, articulate a series of programs and then carry them out is the best answer.
John L. Messina is a native of Tacoma and has been a personal injury trial lawyer in Pierce County for 45 years.