Special Reports

6 months after shootings, city leadership still at issue

The storm at City Hall might be over. But six months after Tacoma Police Chief David Brame killed his wife and himself, there is a strong sense among observers that the city is still adrift.

Substantial changes have yet to be made in the city's personnel policies and procedures, despite apparent flaws in those systems that were exposed in the aftermath of the Brame shootings.

Questions remain about how long either City Manager Jim Walton or Police Chief Don Ramsdell might remain in their positions. Both men initially were named as interim leaders and have since settled into the jobs without much discussion of their long-term status.

And the city's greatest hope for finding answers to the many questions posed by the Brame shooting - an investigation commissioned by the City Council and led by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs - remains stalled.

Explanations abound for the sluggish response, everything from infighting among council members and a pending lawsuit to ongoing criminal investigations and elections next month that will change at least two and perhaps as many as four of the council's nine members.

Mayor Bill Baarsma rejects the charge that nothing is getting done. He points to progress on domestic violence issues, as well as work on other major endeavors including convention center construction, development of the Foss Waterway and efforts to sell the city-owned Carlton Center office building.

"We continue to deliver services each and every day," Baarsma said.

But council observers interviewed for this story see leadership in crisis.

"I understand that people are kind of frozen in denial," said Steve Kirby, a state representative and former Tacoma city councilman. "But when you're there, you have to do something."

Signs of "Brame fatigue" already are apparent. In the police force, there is resignation to the notion that any publicity about the department for years to come will include an obligatory mention of David Brame.

Even city maintenance workers are feeling the weight of the scandal.

"It's like a cloud over the city now," said Dan Miller, a union organizer. "I'd like to see that investigation come to a head so we can get on with our lives. My members are sick and tired of hearing about the Brame thing."

Ginny Eberhardt, part of a 21-member citizen advisory group appointed to review the findings of the WASPC investigation, worries that by the time her group has anything to look at, people won't care about making changes.

"The longer it goes on - what is going to be the reaction?" Eberhardt asked. "Once the criminal part is over with, does anybody want to listen to what we have to say? I still think there are a lot of things that need to be done, but I'm afraid at some point people will say, 'Enough is enough. We don't want to hear about this anymore.'"

Soon after Brame fatally shot his wife and then committed suicide April 26, questions arose about the chief's career with the Tacoma Police Department.

People wanted to know how he was hired in 1981 despite failing a psychological exam; why nothing happened to him following a 1988 rape allegation; and whether City Manager Ray Corpuz knew about the rape allegation when he promoted Brame to chief in 2001.

A split City Council eventually fired Corpuz on a 5-4 vote and council members promised to uncover the truth about Brame's career. They also vowed to make Tacoma a national model in responding to domestic violence.

Since then, the city has made some progress on the domestic violence front. About 400 employees voluntarily attended training to learn how to recognize and respond to domestic violence.

Last month, the City Council voted to begin work on crafting a citywide domestic violence policy. And two council members - Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert - recently attended a domestic violence conference in New Orleans. They intend to give a report to the rest of the council soon.

In addition, the city added a part-time domestic violence advocate to assist with the high number of requests for service, and the police department has begun revising its policies and procedures on domestic violence, Walton said.

But in most other respects, there is little to show for city leaders' efforts.

The city's fact-finding investigation is on hold over concerns it might interfere with separate criminal investigations under way by the Washington State Patrol and the FBI.

No one can say when it will resume and a majority of council members - as well as City Manager Jim Walton - believe the city can't move forward until the investigations are completed.

"We can't control that," Walton said. "We're at the mercy of that process." Walton also said the lawsuit filed by the family of Crystal Brame limits how much the city can accomplish.

"I've been advised to be careful," he said. "It's unfortunate."

Ironically, the family and their lawyers say a main reason they are pushing forward on the lawsuit is because of the city's inaction on investigating and adopting needed reforms.

With a public eager for answers and a city leadership apparently held hostage by process, critics abound.

"They're a complete failure," Sherry Bockwinkel, co-sponsor of an initiative to change the city's form of government that failed to make it onto the ballot because of technical defects, said of city officials. "They're totally embarrassing us as leaders."

Dick Sonntag, a former city councilman, believes the council sends the wrong message by holding too many discussions in executive session.

Some of the legal strategy undoubtedly needs to remain confidential, Sonntag said, but he suspects much of the closed-door discussion could be conducted in public.

"They're leaving it up to me and every other citizen to guess," he said.

"Open government cures a lot of ills. Open the door and let people in."

Some citizens complained the council tried to shut the door recently by voting to limit public comment during council meetings.

And they ridiculed a discussion about bullet-proofing the council dais to boost security at meetings as physical evidence of the council hunkering down.

Michael Sullivan, a former historic preservation officer for the city, understands the charges of failed leadership. But Sullivan, who teaches a class on the history of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma, said he isn't sure "at this point in time it's 'leader-able.'"

Tacoma has endured gut shots throughout its history and generally survived without a single, strong leader emerging, he said. The council-manager form of government doesn't allow individual council members to accomplish much on their own. The mayor gets only one vote and no executive power.

And it makes sense that without Corpuz, who became a powerful leader during his 13-year tenure as city manager, city government would struggle to conduct business, Sullivan added.

"Ray had lined up a fairly dependable network of people and a chain of command," he said. "Those people tended to be in important operating positions. When Ray was gone, those people ended up floating."

Kirby, the former councilman, believes that applies to council members, as well.

"I still think there are council members who can't do anything without the city manager to tell them what to do," he said.

But Baarsma said it's natural for some slowdown following a change in the city manager, Baarsma added. And he noted next month's City Council elections.

"Two new people, maybe three, maybe even four people will be elected," he said. "It's natural for people to put things on hold a bit to see who those new faces will be."

Councilwoman Ladenburg said it isn't fair to say the city is adrift. She points to recent passage of new city rules aimed at cleaning up rundown property as evidence the council is functioning.

Councilwoman Sharon McGavick agrees with critics that the city is "on hold," but she doesn't agree that nothing can be done about it.

She wants to start a review of the city's personnel policies immediately even though the WASPC and criminal investigations are still under way. If other changes are needed based on the eventual findings, the city could go back and make them, she said.

But that has to come from the City Manager's Office, she said.

One thing that council members could do on their own, McGavick said, is start a search for a new city manager as soon as possible. Walton has indicated he will do the job as long as the council wants him, but he isn't interested in it permanently.

But other council members want to wait until after the Nov. 4 election to make a decision about when to start a candidate search. Also complicating matters is a review of the city's charter that's just beginning.

It's possible the review committee will recommend eliminating the city manager position in favor of a return to a strong-mayor form of government. And as long as that looms, some worry that it would scare away the "best and brightest" candidates.

Until the council makes a change in the manager position, the fate of the police chief will remain undecided.

As manager, Walton has the power to hire and fire the police chief. And he made it clear he's happy with Ramsdell.

Ramsdell "is much like me," Walton said. "He is police chief until a different decision is made. I have no idea when that would be."

Even so, McGavick - who is leaving the council at the end of the year - said it's time that city leaders stop "hunkering down."

"We need to take some action," she said. "Leadership requires action. We need to move forward."

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542