Matt Driscoll

Resignations leave Tacoma City Club at a crossroads. Can the institution survive and thrive?

Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Chris Gregoire, left, and Ron Sims, smile during a light moment before speaking at the Tacoma City Club luncheon on July 21, 2004. The Tacoma institution is at a crossroads after its executive director resigned.
Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Chris Gregoire, left, and Ron Sims, smile during a light moment before speaking at the Tacoma City Club luncheon on July 21, 2004. The Tacoma institution is at a crossroads after its executive director resigned. AP file photo

Forget, for a moment, the drama.

There certainly was some when Ronnie Bush abruptly resigned this week as executive director of City Club Tacoma. On Facebook, Bush cited “hostile working conditions, in a way I’ve never experienced in my 40-plus years of employment.”

In her surprise resignation — “effectively immediately,” she wrote — Bush went on to reveal that her assistant, Esther Day, along with City Club President David Olson and board member Liz Burris also were stepping down.

That’s a lot of change at the top, in very short order. While it might be tempting to stop and gawk at what could understandably be perceived as the sudden wreckage of a well-known local civic institution, there are a few worthwhile questions to ponder.

Does City Club have future? If so, what should it be?

On both fronts, it probably depends, but here’s hoping the organization finds a way to move forward.

Admittedly, I’m about as warm on the current version of City Club as the chicken lunches the organization’s noontime programs often feature. I recognize the importance of what City Club tries to do and the thoughtful, informed community dialogue it strives to create. But actually attending its functions has usually struck me as something better fit for aging North End boomers and glad-handing politicians (at least at election time).

That’s to say nothing of the programs themselves. City Club events have been critiqued as one-sided affairs, pro-business pep rallies or painfully lacking in diversity.

Some of these criticisms are warranted. Others likely have been overblown — at least slightly. But they haven’t come completely out of left field, and — together — shed light on the host of challenges City Club faces if it’s to maintain relevance while the landscape of civic dialogue in Tacoma evolves around it.

Kristin Ang — a local attorney and 2017 candidate for the Port of Tacoma Commission (she lost to Don Meyer in a fairly close contest) — has served on the City Club board since last year. With the departure of board president David Olsen, Ang finds herself filling the important role on an interim basis of unspecified length.

She, too, has heard the critiques. But Ang, a 40-year-old Filipino American who identifies as LGBTQ, is adamant about City Club’s ability to continue to serve an important and unique role in the community.

Repeatedly referencing City Club’s motto — “open minds embracing the future” — Ang describes City Club as stridently nonpartisan, open to “conservatives, progressives,” and most of all “civic-minded people with good will.”

With this guiding principle in mind, Ang believes City Club has a purpose worth pursuing in Tacoma.

“We know that during this time where we see a lot of hostility and highly partisan rhetoric on television, that there needs to be this place … where a community can still gather, listen to the best information and civilly discuss the issues,” Ang said.

“We want to include all the voices in our community, and listen to them,” she continued. “Tacoma has it all. We are on that cusp of leaping into the future, and we need to make these decisions, and have the best information possible.”

For what it’s worth, that’s not an altogether different desire than the one that originally gave rise to City Club.

Formed in 1984 by Lilly Warnick and Patricia Lantz, City Club was “patterned,” as its website explains, after similar civic endeavors across the country, particularly in Seattle and Portland.

Through monthly meetings, City Club’s mission is to “provide a nonpartisan forum that brings people together to explore issues and ideas affecting the South Sound community.”

It’s a noble endeavor, certainly, but it’s also natural to wonder whether City Club — with its outdated long lunches and evening programs — is positioned to continue undertaking it.

For what a new form of civic dialogue in Tacoma might look like, one need look no farther than the lineup of community-minded podcasts produced by Channel 253 or the regular Adult Civics Happy Hour events hosted by Lincoln High School’s Nate Bowling.

Bowling, along with his educational duties, has carved out a distinguished voice on a wide array civic issues. In doing so, he’s demonstrated an ability to use the platform he’s created to push a number of important community conversations forward.

While the podcasts and Adult Civics Happy Hour tend to attract a younger, engaged audience that’s probably best described as varying shades of progressive, the model they all rely on isn’t partisan by nature, and the result typically feels a lot fresher than what City Club has historically provided.

These new avenues for civic dialogue are also far more diverse — both in subject matter and in the voices they bring to the table — with a flexible reach that’s able to break down the institutional barriers that often prevent people from participating.

So, is it possible that a nearly four-decade old institution like City Club could learn a few things from the new kids on the block? Could the organization broaden its sphere, diversify its ranks and inject new voices onto its panels?

Could this be the key to City Club’s survival, or — taking the threat of institutional death off the table — at least its continued relevance?

It seems worth a shot, because — for all its current shortcomings — there’s still an undeniable value in what an organization like City Club can provide.

For her part, Ang talks of City Club’s potential for bridging the generational gap, while putting an emphasis on the need to tap into “the energy and ideas” of all corners of the city.

“City Club was started during a time of renaissance in Tacoma, and I feel like we’re at a similar point in history,” Ang says.

“Change is inevitable. If you’re embracing the future, you embrace change.”

That feels like a good place to start.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.