Initiative 2 threatens Tacomans’ right to the ballot

The News Tribune

Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax would be out of a job if the strong-mayor initiative passes in Tacoma.
Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax would be out of a job if the strong-mayor initiative passes in Tacoma. Staff file, 2011

We’ve never seen a ballot measure as thoroughly botched as Tacoma’s Initiative 2, which would give the city a “strong mayor” form of government.

It’s so botched, in fact, that even people who want Tacoma to have an elected chief executive ought to vote it down and wait for a repaired version that could be on the ballot next year.

An accident in the drafting produced the fatal flaw. As written, Initiative 2 would delete a section of the city charter titled “Powers of the People,” which spells out the charter’s initiative and referendum process. If voters approve it, they will lose their right to put anything but a charter amendment on the city ballot.

We’re not making this up. This initiative would repeal the people’s right to pass ordinances by initiative.

Its backers are asking strong-mayor advocates to vote for it on the assurance that a fix down the road will fix the error. But why gamble? People who want the new form of government would be prudent to hold off until they get the right version.

Drafting flaw or no drafting flaw, we think the regime change Initiative 2 would enact is a bad idea for Tacoma.

Any proposed law should face two questions: “What problem does it fix?” and “How is this an improvement?”

Tacoma’s existing council-manager form of government is not a problem. Under the existing arrangement, nine City Council members – including the elected mayor – pass ordinances and supervise the appointed city manager.

This has been working quite nicely. City Manager T.C. Broadnax has been serving the city well for years; he would lose his job if Initiative 2 were passed.

And the mayor is hardly a nonentity under the existing charter. The responsibilities and opportunities of the office go far beyond simply chairing the City Council. Tacoma’s current mayor, Marilyn Strickland, exercises influence in many official roles, including job-creation efforts and regional transportation policymaking.

Those who want to replace Broadnax with a politician say he’s not accountable enough to the voters. That’s ridiculous. Voters elect the council, and the council can fire the manager overnight if they choose to. An elected executive in control of the machinery of government would be much more difficult to remove.

Between elections, an elected mayor would be the prime focus of politically active factions seeking favors and payoffs from the powerful official they helped elect.

In some cities, the worry might be developers or other corporate interests. In Tacoma, labor would call in the most chits.

Tacoma’s municipal unions have been successful over the years in winning exceptionally generous compensation from the city. Sometimes the pushback has mostly come from the nonpolitical city manager. The unions could hit the jackpot if they had a mayor in their pocket.

But the pros and cons of a strong mayor ought to be arguments for another day. The threat to the people’s right to initiatives and referendums disqualifies Initiative 2 on its face, regardless of the merits of a different form of government.

We don’t think the cause is right – but even if it were, this is the wrong measure.