Tacomans vote for council oversight of utility director, defeat term limits change

Tacomans voted Tuesday to give the City Council more oversight of the city’s utility director while also rejecting a proposal to extend term limits for council members who go on to be elected mayor.

The changes were among a dozen proposed amendments to the city charter, essentially the city constitution. As of Tuesday night, nine of the 12 were passing.

One of the most controversial, Amendment 6, will allow the City Council to confirm the appointment of the Tacoma Public Utilities director and then reconfirm that appointment every two years.

The director has answered only to the five-member TPU board appointed by the City Council.

Detractors said the measure would “politicize” the utility director’s post. They also questioned the timing since there had been no complaints about the performance of the current utility director, Bill Gaines.

TPU board member Bryan Flint said he thinks the council should be able to confirm the director’s initial appointment — a power that voters also granted the council for other department heads in a separate charter amendment Tuesday.

But the council’s new oversight of the city manager’s appointments doesn’t extend to reconfirmation, as the TPU measure does. And that’s where Flint says Amendment 6 goes too far.

“I think once the council looks under the hood and digs into the details, they will realize they have a very good director who has done a very good job,” Flint said. “… I think his tenure will continue.”

Those in favor, mostly current City Council members and community activists, said the council should have more oversight of a director who earns more than $319,000 per year and manages the city’s $1 billion water, power, rail and cable utilities.

The charter change also mandates an annual review of the director — something the appointed TPU board already does.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the intent of the change is to ensure that the utility and City Council work more closely together on issues important to Tacomans, such as conservation and rates for low-income customers.

“The voters said ‘yes’ to accountability and ‘yes’ to transparency,” Strickland said. “This was not an attempt to micromanage anything.”

Gaines was not available for comment Tuesday.

Tom Pierson, head of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, opposed ceding more utility authority to the City Council. TPU’s operations are more complex than the rest of city government, and the council will have to do its homework, he said.

“You need to understand the business to understand what the role of the director is,” Pierson said.

Tacomans also upheld a City Council term-limits provision that had stood for more than 40 years.

A proposed charter amendment would have allowed council members who have served two terms on the City Council to also serve two terms — eight years — as mayor. Voters in 1973 limited the amount of time a person elected mayor or council member can remain in one or both offices to no more than 10 consecutive years.

Strickland proposed the term limits extension, though she would not have benefited from it since she is in her second term as mayor. Extended terms would allow council members to see more projects through to completion, Strickland has said.

She’s not surprised by the issue’s failure. “Anything that looks like it’s benefiting elected officials is not going to play well,” Strickland said.

Former Mayor Harold Moss, who helped lead the Forward Tacoma campaign that urged a no vote on all 12 amendments, cheered the failure of the term limits extension.

“They should (say no). We don’t need consecutive elections,” he said. “A person gets (in office), and the next thing you know somebody’s in there for 30 damn years. That’s not a good idea.”

Voters also approved a charter amendment creating a citizen salary commission to decide how much Tacoma’s elected council and mayor will make in future years.

Currently the City Council sets its salary by ordinance. The last ordinance, passed 16 years ago, set the council’s and mayor’s pay, and included a 2.75 percent annual increase. Last year, City Ccouncil members earned $41,267 and the mayor $91,042.

The salary commission will decide pay starting next year. The county auditor will choose five committee members at random — one from each City Council district. The mayor will pick the remaining two, both of whom must have a legal or human resource management background.

Voters also passed a change for emergency ordinances, making them effective immediately after the City Council passes them.

The charter amendment closes what many have called a “loophole” in the current city charter. Three years ago, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance for a six-month pause in permitting for large retail stores. But because of the two-day delay in publishing the ordinance in the city’s newspaper of record, the developer for a Walmart project was able to submit an application before the ordinance became effective.

Strickland said she was surprised so many of the amendments passed given the vocal opponents that formed the Forward Tacoma campaign. It raised about $2,000 and spent most of it on yard signs and pamphlets.

The group, in addition to expressing concern about the term limits and TPU amendments, had worried that giving the City Council confirmation authority for department heads would erode the power of the city manager.