One dangerous idea, three bad ideas and eight reasonable ideas. Such are the proposed charter amendments facing Tacoma voters this fall.
Voters will have to do an intricate and informed dance down the ballot on this one. Twelve separate municipal-code measures are enough to confuse the radar – and some people are counting on citizens to keep marking the “yes” arrows once they get started. So we’ll start by calling out the four ugly proposals.
What they all have in common is the City Council’s hunger to expand its political reach into executive decisions now reserved for City Manager T.C. Broadnax and Tacoma Public Utilities.
• The worst, No. 6, would give the council a chance to oust the TPU director every second year. Under the existing charter, the TPU director – currently Bill Gaines – is hired and supervised by the Public Utility Board, a body of appointed citizens.
The board’s job is to track the performance of the power, water, rail and telecommunications utilities – it does nothing else, and it takes specialized expertise.
If No. 6 passes, the director would have to be reconfirmed by the council every second year; the council would acquire veto power over board decisions to keep management in place. The director would then have to serve two masters: both the board and the highly political council, which has grabbed for utility revenues in times past.
The current system, which buffers the utilities from political agendas, has served the city well for decades. It has allowed Tacoma Public Utilities to successfully carry out long-term plans to secure the city’s water and power supplies. Voter should not junk this healthy arrangement.
• Amendment No. 5 would require council approval of all city department heads, eroding Broadnax’s authority to maintain his own team. Again: Not broke, don’t fix.
• No. 8 would drastically loosen the council’s term limits. Now a council member can serve a maximum of 10 consecutive years, including time as mayor. If No. 8 passes, a local politician could do 10 years on the council, then another eight years as mayor. This is a big step toward political careerism.
• No. 9 seeks the same end by sneakier means: a salary commission that could provide political cover for big council pay raises. We like the Tacoma tradition of a citizen council whose members have day jobs, especially in the private sector, that keep them anchored in the world outside city government. That would disappear if the council became a highly paid career in its own right.
Those are the bad ideas.
The rest are either commonsensical or designed to bring charter language in line with already-prevailing state and local policies.
Two are especially important.
Under No. 4, emergency ordinances would take effect immediately, upon passage by the City Council, rather than remaining in limbo until official publication. In 2011, this lag allowed a developer to nail down the right to slip an unpopular Walmart into Tacoma while a moratorium adopted by the council was pending publication.
We can imagine more dire emergencies – involving, say, an epidemic – that might require an ordinance to take effect immediately. The council needs this power.
Finally, Amendment No. 12 would phase out an existing requirement that city managers hire only residents of Tacoma. This rule is unenforceable. Police and firefighters are already exempt, and others need only claim residence in Tacoma on the day of hiring.
The biggest problem is that it can complicate searches for specialists with scarce talents who live elsewhere and have other job options.
So … no on 5, 6, 8 and 9; yes on 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11 and 12. Plan to spend an extra couple minutes sorting this one out.
Read more election endorsement editorials at www.thenewstribune.com/endorsements.