Special Reports

Post-Brame Tacoma: Engines stirring, but still far to go

If the City of Tacoma were a ship at sea, it would not be sinking or drifting aimlessly. A year after the David Brame catastrophe hit the hull like a torpedo, the ship is moving, and it has some direction. What Tacoma isn't doing is moving quickly enough toward a better future.

Its officers and crew are still engaged in damage control. There are gaps at the bridge: The director of economic develop-ment is gone; the city attorney is leaving; the director of human resources is on leave and under investigation.

Any applicants for these positions will not know who their boss is going to be, long term. City Manager Jim Walton - who was thrown into the job when his predecessor, Ray Corpuz, was forced out last summer - is nearing retirement and scheduled to depart next March.

Uncertainty hangs over the search for his successor. Embol-dened by the Brame debacle, some citizens are working to replace the manager-council form of government with a strong-mayor model. Until that question is resolved, it will be difficult to find good candidates for a city manager position that may disappear at the next election.

The City Council's best option is to ask the voters this November whether they want a strong mayor instead of a manager. If the voters say yes, a charter review committee should craft - in an open process - an appropriate amendment to the city charter. If the voters say no, the issue will be settled.

The good news is that the engine is stirring again. For much of the past year, Tacoma has been coasting on momentum left over from Corpuz's enterprising administration - following through on such Corpuz-era initiatives as the new convention center. But the new City Council appears to be getting its bearings and its sea legs.

It has been encouraging, for example, to see the council adopt a new committee structure that should make for a more open and deliberative decision-making process. It has also been encouraging recently to see Walton and the council roll out a $31 million plan to improve roads, and install street lights and other amenities around the city. This would be a small down payment on the $700 million-plus worth of infrastructure the city needs, but it is progress.

One bright spot in all this has been the performance of interim Police Chief Don Ramsdell. He enjoys the confidence of the rank and file, and he's brought an impressive degree of profession-alism, openness and simple decency to the job - a blessed contrast to Brame.

In the aftermath of Brame's murder-suicide, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Tacoma would have to look far and wide for an effective, reforming police chief to bring a new ethic to the department's command structure. But the permanent chief the city needs may already be right at hand.