Politics & Government

Debate over Tacoma mayor’s role has Brame overtones

The ghost of David Brame continues to haunt the debate over how Tacoma should govern itself.

More than a decade ago, as Tacoma reeled after its police chief fatally shot his wife and then killed himself, many blamed the appointed city manager for the state of affairs. Some citizens said the answer lay in shifting power to the mayor’s office.

Time has diminished that outrage, but the influence past city managers have had on Tacoma still weighs heavily on the minds of those selected last year to consider revisions to the city charter.

“If Brame had been brought before the City Council for confirmation, it never would’ve happened,” said Bill Baarsma, a former Tacoma mayor and now the chairman of the city’s Charter Review Committee. “And we wouldn’t have had one of the worst scandals in the city’s history.”

As the city’s last charter review panel did in 2004, this year’s committee is considering strengthening the mayor’s role in running city government. It is poised to suggest ditching the council-manager form of government for one led by a mayor and a hired administrator.

If the question was put to voters and approved this fall, the Tacoma mayor would take on many of the powers of the current city manager. A chief administrative officer would assist the mayor in day-to-day operations. The number of City Council members would be reduced to seven.

Baarsma said a proposal to move to a mayor-administrator form of government has nothing to do with the current city manager, T.C. Broadnax. Rather, it addresses what Baarsma calls abuses of power by Ray Corpuz, city manager at the time of Brame’s murder-suicide, as well as Broadnax’s predecessor Eric Anderson, whom many blame for city financial problems.

Residents will have a chance to examine the charter committee’s draft proposals and offer suggestions at two public meetings this month. The first is Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Tacoma Municipal Building. A second meeting, April 17 at 7 p.m., will be a telephone town hall that people can also attend in person. Questions can be submitted for the second meeting ahead of time.

The Charter Review Committee, charged with the once-a-decade task of recommending changes to what is essentially the city’s constitution, has worked at a frenetic pace over the past few months, sometimes meeting late into the night and on weekends.

The group’s final recommendations are due April 19, and it will report to the City Council on May 6. From there, the council could place the recommended items on the fall ballot or craft measures of its own.

Baarsma said the proposal to change the form of government is prompted by a desire to see more power in the hands of the people Tacomans elect. Baarsma, Tacoma’s mayor from 2002 to 2009, wrote a doctoral dissertation in 1973 critiquing Tacoma’s current system of government.

Under the current proposal, the mayor would become the chief executive of the city with the responsibility of proposing a budget and economic development plan to the City Council. He or she would also have the power to appoint all department heads, subject to the council’s confirmation, and to veto measures approved by the council.

The council could override the mayor’s veto with a two-thirds majority. The Charter Review Committee’s draft proposal suggests replacing the current council — a mayor and eight council members, elected in a mix of district and at-large elections — with seven members, all elected by district.

Baarsma said the committee is looking at other ways to empower the council even if the city retains its council-manager form of government. An example would be staff to help council members independently analyze the budget.

The charter changes required to implement a mayor-administrator form of government are extensive and have limited the charter committee’s other work.

Early on, the committee considered bringing Tacoma Public Utilities operations under the direction of the city manager. But Baarsma said some committee members were concerned that such a move would consolidate too much power under one person. Also, the committee simply did not have enough time to undertake both a change in the form of government and changes to TPU’s governance.

But the charter committee could propose a couple of changes to how TPU is governed, including making the TPU director subject to both a City Council performance evaluation annually and council confirmation every four years.

“What this does in essence is provide a greater degree of accountability for TPU,” Baarsma said.

The committee also might recommend changing TPU board member terms from five years to three years to mirror terms for the city planning commission, Baarsma said.

The committee also is considering a charter amendment that would create a salary commission, its members selected at random from registered voters in Tacoma. The panel would decide how much money the city’s elected officials make.

Another possible recommendation would bolster neighborhood councils by writing them into the city’s charter.