Tacomans to decide rule change on emergency ordinances

When the Tacoma City Council passed an emergency ordinance three years ago to pause permitting for large retail stores like Walmart, it didn’t take effect right away

First, the city had to wait for the ordinance to be published in the Tacoma Daily Index — the city’s contracted paper of record for legal notices.

That two-day delay was enough time for the developer to get his toe in the Planning Department’s door to submit an application for a 150,000-square-foot Walmart on the former Tacoma Elks Lodge site.

That’s a problem, say supporters of Amendment 4.

The amendment would allow emergency ordinances to take effect immediately upon passage. It is one of 12 the City Council placed on the fall ballot as part of the once-a-decade process to review the charter, essentially the city constitution.

Supporters argue that the current charter language is outdated in an age when the Internet and email allow for immediate notice. Other Washington cities governed by charters, among them Spokane, Seattle and Bellingham, allow for immediate passage of emergency ordinances.

“An emergency does not mean 48 hours from now,” said Justin Leighton, who worked to stop the Walmart project and was a member of the appointed Charter Review Committee that proposed the amendment. “It allows the council to have more tools in the toolbox to slow a process down.”

The emergency ordinance in Walmart’s case was intended to be a six-month halt on all permits for large retail stores to give the citizen planning commission time to study the issue.

The Walmart project bypassed the moratorium and opened less than two years later in June 2013. But the developer of the Walmart site, Allenmore Medical Investors, alleges that the council’s attempt to halt the project still was a hindrance. The company is suing the city for $1.8 million in damages it says were caused by the moratorium and resulting delays.

Tom Stenger, a former city councilman who wrote the voter pamphlet statement against Amendment 4, says a shorter timeline makes it easier for property owners to be ambushed. He called emergency ordinances “the lazy man’s way of legislating.”

“If they were doing proper planning they wouldn’t have to be calling emergencies,” Stenger said. “They would know what’s in the future, and they would already be planning for it.”