Tacoma strong mayor ballot item could have unintended consequences

Opponents of the latest move to change Tacoma’s form of government say sloppy editing in a fall ballot issue could lead to dire consequences if voters approve the switch.

Supporters of the issue — called “Charter Amendment Initiative Measure No. 2” on Tacoma ballots but “strong mayor” in political circles — say they want a mayor as head of Tacoma government instead of a city manager.

They also want to give the council more power and make common-sense changes to Tacoma’s term limits, said Alex Hays, who leads the effort to change what is essentially the city’s constitution.

But they stumbled in putting the issue before voters, submitting a version of the city’s charter that accidentally deleted an entire section called “Powers of the People,” which outlines how citizens put issues on the ballot and establishes a 10-year review of the city charter.

Other drafting errors would change term lengths from four years to unlimited for any Tacoma official elected after the election is certified, according to the city attorney.

A brief history of Tacoma’s form of government

Right now, voters elect eight council members and a mayor. That group oversees one employee, the city manager it selects to oversee day-to-day operations of the city. The manager hires department heads, with council approval, and fires them. He or she also carries out the council’s policy directions. The council can fire the city manager with at least five votes.

The council-manager form of government has ruled Tacoma since voters approved it in 1952. Before then, five elected commissioners led Tacoma. Scandals wreaked city hall and a national magazine called Tacoma “Seattle’s dirty backyard.”

Since then, many have tried to change the form of government to get rid of the city manager position and install a mayor as the head of city government — voters turned it down in 1956, 1968 and 1970. That change was proposed most recently in 2014, when a majority of the council-appointed charter review commission advanced a slate of changes to the council, including the change to strong mayor.

The council didn’t forward the strong mayor proposal to the ballot.

What was the intent of strong mayor supporters?

Hays has picked up where the charter review committee left off. He said many Tacomans favor a form of government in which they can elect the top city official.

“The mayor campaigns on a vision, and the public essentially says yes or no to that. With a mayoral election, you will have several competing visions of Tacoma. The public will pick the ones they like,” said Hays, president of the Pierce County Better Government League, which proposed the ballot measure.

To date, the group has raised $18,600, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Donations include $11,000 from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, $5,000 from attorney John Messina and his wife, Guelda, and $2,000 from two labor union political-action committees. The campaign is nearly $32,000 in debt.

If passed, one council position would be eliminated at the end of 2017, Hays said. This would bring the number of voting council members to seven — preserving the council as an odd-numbered body, as the mayor would no longer have a vote.

The City Council would also have new investigative powers: to subpoena witnesses and take testimony, for instance. Two-thirds of the council could impeach the mayor “for commission of a felony, willful violation of duty” or an offense of “moral turpitude.” The council could also override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote.

The measure also seeks to separate the terms for mayor and council members. Currently, someone can serve up to 10 consecutive years in council and mayoral positions. Hays intended the issue to outline terms in this way: council members would be limited to two, four-year terms with the mayor also limited to two four-year terms.

That’s where Hays’ intentions end and reality begins, opponents say.

City attorney: Glitch would cause litany of issues

On the petitions he circulated for signatures, Hays printed the entire text of what he thought the city charter would look like after the switch to a strong mayor. It went unnoticed that he had picked a version of the charter in which powers of the people and other sections were marked for deletion. That is, until the Pierce County Auditor’s office began checking the roughly 11,000 signatures submitted to get the measure on the ballot and observers discovered the problem.

Ken Miller, who served on the 2014 charter review committee and is working on the campaign to pass the strong mayor proposal, laments the mistake.

“I’m pretty confident nobody signed the petition to remove that section,” Miller said in July.

Regardless of the intent of the drafters, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said the city must strictly adhere to the wording on the page.

“When they say they didn’t intend (to delete the section) I believe them. I absolutely believe them. Does that matter in terms of the impact? I don’t think that matters,” Pauli said.

Among the issues Pauli has identified with the charter proposal, either caused by the deletion of the powers of the people section or other errors:

▪ The current mayor and city manager would be ousted as soon as the election is certified Nov. 25, Pauli wrote. Voters would decide who the first strong mayor is at a special election in February.

▪ Because the mayor would lose her vote in the shift to strong mayor, the council would have eight voting members until the smaller council takes office Jan. 1, 2018. The proposed charter says an issue passes if it receives four yes votes — meaning that for a couple of years, a tie vote can still result in an issue passing. Currently tie votes fail, Pauli said.

▪ A City Council member or mayor’s term is currently four years long. Though the proposed charter says council members and mayors are limited to two terms each, it removes references to how long a term of office should last. Any council member or mayor elected after Nov. 25 would have indefinite terms of office, Pauli said.

▪ References about how to submit an initiative petition are removed from the charter. State law preserves the method for submitting changes to the city charter. People could continue to propose changes to the city charter, as Hays has, but could not propose changes to other city laws. If the charter amendment had been in place this year, 15 Now Tacoma could not have asked voters to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15.

▪ The mandate for a once-a-decade review of the city charter is removed.

▪ References to the planning commission and library board would be removed. The library board is protected by state law, and the planning commission would remain unless the council later decides to abolish it by changing other city laws, Pauli said.

If the amendment does pass, Pauli said there are ways the council could try to repair the charter. Term limits could be re-established by an ordinance passed by the council. Rights to initiative, however, would require another charter change, which would likely take at least several months and more likely a year to pass.

Someone also might challenge the entire amendment in court if voters approve it, Pauli said.

“This appears to be an entirely new charter, but that didn’t come through a new charter process,” she said.

What supporters say

Of course the city attorney would take issue with the proposal, Hays said. She’s employed by the city manager, a “hired gun, mercenary figure” without a deep connection to Tacoma.

Hays said he thinks Pauli will suddenly change her legal opinion if the voters decide they want a strong mayor. He said the council “gamed the system” by not fixing his draft before it went onto the ballot. Pauli has declined to comment about whether the council had the power to fix the proposal before it went to voters.

“They refused to do the rational, reasonable thing because they want to manipulate the vote. A voter should ask themselves, do they want to reward this bad conduct?” Hays said.

Miller said the difference between the current council-manager form of government and a strong mayor one is the difference between management and leadership. The current focus on management is one reason why Tacoma has “stalled as a city” with relatively low population growth compared to the rest of the region as one example, he said.

“We are unable to fight our way out of this malaise. There is nobody charting a course,” Miller said. “I also think the City Council as a group of people can’t exercise effective leadership.”

He said the current council, which includes the mayor, has nine people with different ideas. A strong mayor could drive one agenda for Tacoma. He said a strong mayor is better for the city because “it’s difficult for a group of people to provide the same kind of bold leadership.” Strong mayors can make deals that a city council cannot, he said.

Hays said he believes that an elected strong mayor is “inherently more ethical, responsive and thoughtful leader” than a city manager.

“We have no crises, controversies or scandals involving mayors, but we have a long list of scandals involving city managers,” Hays said. “Something has to explain that difference between the two offices. I think it’s the responsiveness to the public.”

But Tacoma’s highest elected post is not without scandal, according to former Mayor Bill Baarsma’s 1973 dissertation on the history of Tacoma’s form of government. Tacoma had a modified version of strong mayor from 1896 to 1910.

During that time, at least one mayor was indicted by a grand jury, according to the dissertation: Mayor John Linck in 1909 for “failure to suppress houses of ill-fame.”

What opponents say

Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow, with the League of Women Voters, believes a strong mayor could be more more easily swayed by the political winds — and campaign donations — since he or she would have direct control of city operations.

“I think strong mayor is a terrible idea, and everything else about No. 2 is at least as bad as that,” she said. “This is the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever seen.”

And, she said, if there’s a scandal with the city manager, “you can fire the city manager. Recalls are slow and expensive and almost impossible, as we all know.”

Tim Farrell, who was against the issue as a member of the charter review committee last year, said he it will be thrown out in court because of all of its problems if voters pass it.

“Even if you support strong mayor, I’d hope you don’t vote for this thing because it creates so many problems,” Farrell said in July. “No matter what you do, always check your work. What an expensive mistake.”

What Tacoma’s current mayor says

Some incorrectly say strong-mayor cities have lower crime rates, better economic development or more accountability, said Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who is opposed to the charter change.

“Some of the largest cities in America with a strong mayor have some of the worst crime,” she said. “I’m not sold on the idea that a change in the form of government will result in something miraculous for Tacoma that hasn’t happened in the last 40 or 50 years.”

A city’s quality is defined by the people who run it, not the form of government, Strickland said. She doesn’t believe strong mayor proponents can make an honest case that their form of government has more accountability.

Even with this form of government, Tacoma mayors are more than figureheads, Strickland said. Anyone who says otherwise can look at her calendar.

“I think Tacoma voters are very smart and very thoughtful,” Strickland said. “I think there’s an overall sentiment that this form of government is working and it’s working well.”

More information

Pierce County Better Government League: facebook.com/pcbgl.

No on Prop. 2: tacomaballotissues. org/term-limits.