Politics & Government

Quicker council action among Tacoma charter amendments headed to ballot

Tacoma officials want to eliminate the legal technicality that halted their efforts to stop Walmart from coming to town three years ago.

That change, along with 11 other proposed amendments to the city’s charter, will go before Tacoma voters this fall after the Tacoma City Council agreed Tuesday to place them on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Among the proposals are increasing term limits for council members who go on to be mayor, and giving the City Council new authority over the director of Tacoma Public Utilities.

An amendment to speed the effectiveness of emergency ordinances recalls the city’s failed attempt in 2011 to block Walmart from building a 154,000-square-foot store on South 23rd Street and Union Avenue.

Council members passed an emergency measure in August 2011 to temporarily halt new applications for big-box stores — or those exceeding 65,000 square feet — for a period of six months. The measure didn’t take effect, however, until it was published two days later in the city’s newspaper of record, the Tacoma Daily Index.

In the intervening hours, the architects for the planned Walmart development submitted detailed building plans to the city. The project was allowed to proceed since its application technically was filed before the temporary ban was published.

“If we need an emergency ordinance, it shouldn’t be, ‘There’s an emergency’ — three days later,” Councilman Marty Campbell said Tuesday.

Voters also will be asked to decide whether to give the City Council greater power over who serves as the director of Tacoma Public Utilities.

Under a proposed charter amendment, council members would need to approve the TPU director’s initial appointment, and then re-confirm that person’s appointment every two years.

Right now, the authority to hire and fire the public utility director lies with the Public Utility Board, whose members are appointed by the City Council.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said giving the City Council more authority over the director of Tacoma Public Utilities makes sense, given the position’s high salary. TPU Director Bill Gaines earned $323,000 last year, making him Tacoma’s highest-paid city employee.

“This is simply an opportunity for the two entities to work together, because we are all government and we all serve the public,” Strickland said.

But the members of the Public Utility Board wrote a letter to council members Tuesday saying they think the change would hurt communication between the City Council and the utility director.

“We also are concerned that a potentially divisive election contest could worsen – not improve – Council/Board relations,” the letter from the five board members read.

Councilmen David Boe and Joe Lonergan both opposed the measure to give the City Council more oversight of TPU leadership, saying they didn’t see the benefit of changing the city’s current relationship with the utility.

“I think we’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist,” Boe said.

Another change facing voters is whether to increase term limits for City Council members who become mayor.

Right now, a person may serve up to 10 consecutive years on the council or as mayor. The proposed charter amendment would allow a person to spend 10 years on the council and then serve eight more years as mayor, for a total of 18 years in elected office.

Boe said the amendment would allow the most qualified people – those who have previously served multiple terms on the City Council – to run for mayor. Under the current system, someone could only serve two years on the City Council if they wanted to pursue two terms as Tacoma mayor.

Strickland said the proposed charter amendment would provide better “continuity of leadership.”

A past Tacoma mayor, however, urged the council to reject the proposal and not send it to voters.

“I and those who served with me back then needed to get out – we needed to make room for you,” said former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss. “Let the next generation take its proper place up there.”

Some of the other proposed charter amendments would create a citizen commission to set the salaries of City Council members; remove a requirement that city employees must live in Tacoma; eliminate a ban on building new cemeteries and mausoleums; and establish the city’s existing Landmarks Preservation Commission as a permanent part of the city government.

The proposed changes are part of Tacoma’s once-a-decade review of its charter, which outlines how the city government operates.

One idea that didn’t move forward was to amend the city’s charter to include a strong mayor – something that a majority of the citizens on the city’s Charter Review Committee had recommended. That would be a switch from the city’s current form of government, in which an elected council hires a professional city manager.

The City Council decided not to send that proposal to voters, opting to keep the current system.