Special Reports

Acting city manager urges end to finger-pointing

Acting Tacoma city manager Jim Walton said Tuesday he wants to end the atmosphere of finger-pointing and blame that's emerged since Police Chief David Brame fatally shot himself and his estranged wife nearly six weeks ago.

Walton urged employees and the media to focus on a positive future for the city. Questions are inevitable as residents wrestle with anger, sadness and trauma, he said. But the city needs to move beyond finding "convenient scapegoats.

"Since April 26, 2003, our every waking moment - our thoughts, activities and plans - have been influenced and shaped by the shooting and subsequent death of Crystal Brame and the suicide of David Brame," Walton said in a six-page memo to council members. "It's hard to imagine a more tragic series of events.

"(But) our relentless pursuit of answers as to 'why' has paralyzed us, polarized us, discouraged us, made us ill-tempered, and blurred our vision for the city. ... It is time to move ahead. It's time to think about Tacoma tomorrow."

At least one council member said she welcomed Walton's memo because she's been frustrated by reading new revelations about the Brame case each day in the newspaper.

"I feel like The News Tribune is running the city," Sharon McGavick said. She complained of a lack of information from other city leaders, including Walton and Mayor Bill Baarsma.

"We're just not getting the calls," McGavick said. "We're not getting updated. We need better communication."

Baarsma added: "The city manager is sometimes just as surprised as we are" by new revelations in the media.

Walton outlined a series of "initiatives" he and others are pursuing to put the city back on track. Specifically, Walton said he's working to rebuild the relationship between the city's Human Resources and legal departments following a public disagreement about what happened at a meeting between the two April 25, the day before Brame shot himself and his wife.

Walton also said the city must wrestle with serious questions, such as how it responds to victims and how officials investigate alleged misconduct by employees when given credible information.

"In the coming weeks, I'll continue to work with members of our executive management team to accelerate the process of seeking answers," Walton said.

Walton denounced the media attention on the differences between the city's top two lawyers and Human Resources officials.

The City Attorney's Office maintains that Human Resources officials never recommended putting Brame on administrative leave in a brief April 25 meeting, which would have entailed taking his gun and badge.

The city's top two personnel officials unequivocally state they did make that recommendation and that they wanted help in making their case to the city manager.

"Regardless of whose 'truth' you believe in this matter, the media attention given to the April 25 meeting - sensationalized with the alleged 'taking of gun and badge' discussion - has proven to be a non-starter," Walton said.

Walton also defended two meetings he convened in late May when he sat down with human resources and city attorney staff members to resolve their recollections of the April 25 meeting.

"We were hoping the parties could come together," he said.

But as much as Walton wants to put the matter behind him, questions about that meeting still persist.

In an interview with The News Tribune on Friday, Human Resources director Phil Knudsen said he recalled a conversation with chief assistant city attorney Elizabeth Pauli in which she agreed that Brame's administrative leave was discussed April 25.

"To my recollection, legal was willing to say we had discussed admin leave," Knudsen told The News Tribune.

Pauli on Tuesday said she could not comment because the City Council's waiver of attorney-client privilege did not extend to that conversation with Knudsen, and she would consult with the state Bar Association to see whether she is free to comment.

"There are things that I'd like to say that could offer a more complete picture," she said.

One legal expert thinks it's understandable that the acting city manager would want to discuss the disputed April 25 meeting to find out where officials agreed or disagreed. But such a discussion might cause people to inadvertently reconstruct memories. The meeting also occurred before at least one official had been interviewed by criminal investigators.

"From the perspective of an investigator, the risk is people ironing out differences that were honestly there," said John Strait, a Seattle University law professor.

Staff writer Kris Sherman contributed to this report.

Martha Modeen: 253-597-8646