Politics & Government

Judge: Tacoma charter amendment language to remain unchanged

The wording in four Tacoma charter amendments on the fall ballot will not change despite a challenge by a group of former mayors, City Council members and other citizens.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Martin ruled Thursday to keep the ballot titles and explanations the same, and not reduce the number of words.

Martin said she sympathized with those who want to make the ballot issues clearer, but she said state law does not give her the authority to “wordsmith” the language.

Earlier this week, a who’s who of former city leaders filed appeals in four of the city’s 12 charter review amendments headed to the November ballot. Many of those leaders observed Thursday’s court hearing from the audience.

Former Mayor Harold Moss argued the language should say “charter amendment” instead of “proposition.” “People need to know as they go to vote on the amendment that it’s an amendment to the city’s constitution, not something we do every day.”

Martin said she would like to change the word “proposition” in the ballot language, but it could apply only to the four issues appealed and not to the other eight charter amendments on the ballot.

She decided not to do it because it could prove equally confusing for voters, she said.

One of the four challenged measures would extend term limits for City Council members who hope also to serve as mayor; the second would create a citizen salary commission for elected positions; the third would require the council to confirm all department heads selected by the city manager; and the fourth would require the council to confirm the employment of the utility director every two years.

Attorney Ed Hudson, who worked pro bono to appeal the four amendments, argued that at least two charter amendments should be split into multiple other amendments, or struck from the ballot entirely.

The amendment that would require the City Council to reconfirm the utility director’s appointment, Hudson argued, should be split into three separate ballot issues: one that requires the utility board to review the director each year, another for the utility board to decide whether to continue his or her employment, and a third for the council’s confirmation of the director.

“A voter is going to look at these things and say, ‘Well, I like the idea of an annual review, but these other things I don’t like,’ ” Hudson said. “This entire proposition should be stricken from the ballot and not appear at all in this year’s election.”

But Deputy City Attorney Jean Homan said the court doesn’t have the authority to strike the measure from the ballot or break it into parts.

“This does not embrace multiple subjects. It is simply an amendment,” Homan said.

Sherry Bockwinkel, one of those who appealed the ballot language, said the proposed amendment to extend term limits was not sufficiently clear. People might not know how long a term is, she said.

Proposed charter amendment No. 8 asks voters whether they want to allow people to serve 10 consecutive years on City Council and two terms as mayor. Each elected term typically lasts four years.

“It’s confusing when they’re talking about 10 years and two terms,” Bockwinkel said. “… if they said eight years, I wouldn’t have a quarrel with it.”

Martin, however, said the ballot title is accurate.

“The voters’ pamphlet can cure a lot of the plaintiffs’ concerns,” the judge said in her ruling from the bench.