Special Reports

Council, manager talk exit strategy

Tacoma City Manager Jim Walton is close to agreement with the City Council on setting a retirement date from the position he assumed last summer.

Walton and four council members have been in talks to create an employment contract for the manager that, if approved, could put an end to the uncertainty over how long he will lead the city.

A proposal the group put together calls for Walton to continue as city manager through the end of the year and possibly longer if the council asks him to stay on during a transition period, said Mayor Bill Baarsma, chairman of the city's performance review committee.

The development could clear the way for the City Council to begin a search for a new manager, something it has yet to do. Given the length of time that might take, it's likely that Walton would be asked to work into 2005.

"I doubt very much we could bring in a new manager by the end of the year," Baarsma said.

Walton, who said he favors the move toward a formal employment contract, said Wednesday negotiations are not over and that he plans to consult with his attorney before agreeing to anything. But he doesn't anticipate any serious sticking points.

"Their desire and my desire is to agree on the terms of a contract as quickly as we can," Walton said.

He wouldn't comment on how much longer he might remain on the job. "I will be here as long as they want me to be here," Walton said, repeating a sentiment he's expressed many times since he was chosen to replace fired City Manager Ray Corpuz last July.

Walton, 65, has worked for the City of Tacoma more than 32 years. He was deputy city manager under Corpuz when Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and killed himself April 26.

Since moving into the top position, Walton has received praise from council members and others at City Hall for helping stabilize a tumultuous city government. But others have said the city needs to start a job search for the next manager as soon as possible.

Tacoma has long considered entering into a formal employment contract with its manager but held off for a variety of reasons, Walton said. One fear was that a contract could make it harder for the City Council to fire the manager, he said.

But the City Council can still fire the manager at any time provided there is a majority of five members in favor of the action, Walton said.

"Five votes and you're gone," he said. "A contract doesn't change that."

A contract could actually make it easier to fire the manager because it anticipates the possibility and spells out a process.

Baarsma said that both the city and Walton will benefit from a formal contract that spells out a departure date.

For Walton, it's a matter of fairness, Baarsma said.

"It gets him out of this gray area and puts a specific date and possibility of continuing on if we're all comfortable."

For the city, it might be even more important. It might be necessary in order to attract candidates for Walton's successor, Baarsma said.

"There are very few cities that have noncontract relationships with the city manager," he said. "Any city manager probably will ask for it."

Finding a replacement for Walton could be complicated by uncertainty over Tacoma's form of government. A citizens group wants to put an end to the council-manager form and bring back a so-called strong mayor structure, a change that would eliminate the manager position.

The group, Time For A Change, is circulating a signature petition in hopes of putting the question to voters on the November 2005 ballot, or possibly sooner if the City Council permits. The group gathered enough signatures to the put the issue on the ballot last fall, but a printing error rendered the effort invalid.

But Baarsma said the council can't let the uncertainty stop it from at least talking about finding a new manager.

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542