Special Reports

Corpuz's dismissal: Accountability at work in Tacoma

In the Navy, a ship's captain is responsible for what goes wrong aboard his vessel - however good an officer he is and even when he is not directly to blame for a subordinate's actions.

The principle is called accountability. It is why the Tacoma City Council had little choice Tuesday but to terminate Ray Corpuz's employment as city manager as of July 15.

Various arguments have swirled around Corpuz's status over the last two months. One had to do with the cost of keeping him on the payroll while he was on an indefinite leave; another had to do with legal liability. Behind it all, though, was the stark fact that Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and himself April 26. Corpuz had failed to react to warnings about Brame in the weeks before he made him chief; more recently, he failed to intervene after Crystal Brame complained of death threats from her husband.

Given Brame's political and manipulative skills, other city executives might also have done what Corpuz did. Perhaps no one except Crystal knew that Tacoma's police chief was actually capable of murder. But somebody had to answer for the Brame catastrophe, and Corpuz was at the helm when the ship ran aground.

It is unfortunate that Corpuz's long and largely successful career with the City of Tacoma had to end on this note. Apart from the Brame scandal, Corpuz has been an exceptionally capable admin-istrator. Many people contributed to the renaissance that occurred in Tacoma during the 1990s, but no one did more to make it happen than the man who has been city manager the last 13 years.

Corpuz deserves to be remembered for what he did for Tacoma, not for what David Brame did to his wife.

Accountability also has a lot to do with the current petition drive to change Tacoma's city charter. Voters are likely to have a chance in November to decide whether to retain the city manager form of government or replace it with a system in which an elected mayor would become Tacoma's chief executive.

Some of the people pushing for this change have been exploiting the Brame scandal, saying it would be easier to hold a strong mayor accountable for the mistakes Corpuz made. In fact, the opposite is true.

Had an executive mayor dealt with David Brame the way Corpuz did, he or she could not have been terminated by the City Council. The mayor could not have been held to account by the voters until it came time for his or her re-election - perhaps in two or three years.

The supposed option of a recall election is pure illusion. The voters' right to recall an elected official is a extremely limited in Washington - a remedy available only when the official in question has broken the law in a big way. Successful recalls are almost nonexistent in this state, and there is scant evidence that Corpuz's mistakes with David Brame would meet the legal test for such an election in the first place.

In contrast to a strong mayor, Tacoma's city manager was subject to dismissal by the City Council - and dismissal happened, after necessary debate, a little more than two months after Brame's murder-suicide. Now that is accountability.