Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms once again is serving his country.
The question for the citizens of District 2, who Thoms was re-elected in November to represent, is who will serve them in his absence?
The no-duh answer is it better be someone. Because allowing Thoms’ seat to sit vacant for six months serves no one.
A commander in U.S. Navy Reserves as well as a councilman, Thoms last week announced he has been involuntarily recalled to active duty. A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Thoms soon will be deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan for six months, where he’ll serve as a public affairs officer.
First, let me take a moment to appropriately acknowledge Thoms’ sacrifice and his continued service to the United States. When he told The News Tribune that “I’d much rather be with my family,” I’m sure he meant it. Thoms is honored and humbled to serve, but he’s also being sent to war — and being sent away from the ones he loves.
He deserves our admiration and respect.
At the same time, what District 2 deserves in Thoms’ absence is a council person dedicated to representing it.
Initially, when Thoms announced his pending deployment, the plan seemed to be to let his seat collect dust until his return. Two of the City Council’s three at-large members — Lillian Hunter and Conor McCarthy — promised to “pay special attention to the needs of community members in District 2,” according to a press release announcing the news. Meanwhile, Thoms has said he’ll be able to stay engaged half a world away.
That’s nice, but it’s also plainly inadequate. Thoms shouldn’t be asked to multitask from Afghanistan any more than the citizens of District 2 should be asked to settle for less representation than they deserve.
The sooner the City Council recognizes this and begins the process of finding an interim replacement for Thoms during his deployment the better off Tacoma will be. The fact that the council will discuss the matter this week suggests they’re starting to get the necessary message.
Why does it matter?
For starters, at-large council members are already tasked with representing the breadth of the city. Asking them to pay special consideration to District 2, on top of what they’ve been elected to do, puts them in a difficult — if not impossible — position. It doesn’t make sense.
More importantly, it’s the principle of the matter.
Six months might not seem like a long time, but it’s at least two dozen council meetings, and who knows how many votes. That’s not counting missed study sessions and committee meetings. There will be plenty of issues and decisions over the next six months that directly impact District 2, and residents there deserve a voice in tackling them.
Should the residents of District 2 really go without in-person representation for half a year? And who is really advocating for that as a good idea?
It just doesn’t pass the smell test.
So, let’s look ahead. If the City Council decides to find an interim replacement for Thoms — as it should — there are legitimate concerns to contend with.
The process likely will be taxing. The most recent example, when Victoria Woodards stepped down from her at-large seat at the tail end of 2016 to run for mayor, resulted in 55 applicants that had to be reviewed and winnowed down. Ultimately, the undertaking took nearly a month.
In District 2, it seems safe to assume there won’t be 55 applicants. Even so, finding a replacement for Thoms clearly would consume council time and resources.
So, better to start now. If the council plays its cards right, a replacement could be selected by this time next month — not long after Thoms departs.
There’s also the matter of getting Thoms’ replacement up to speed. There are three new council members and a new mayor also learning the ropes right now, and it’s been suggested that it might be too much to orientate an interim council member at the same time.
With all due respect to our passionate and dedicated elected officials, I always find it a bit dubious when, once they’re in office, the average citizens we’ve chosen to represent us argue that the job is just too complicated for an average citizen to step into.
District 2 is full of smart, capable people. Surely someone is up to the job.
When it comes to the prospect of replacing him during his absence, Thoms, fresh off re-election, has said he could go either way on the matter.
That’s his stance to choose, and he’s earned the right to make it. At the same time, for the citizens he’s supposed to represent, there’s only one outcome that seems worth stumping for.
The people of District 2 deserve full representation in their councilman’s absence.