If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That old truism is all voters need to know to understand why all 12 proposed Tacoma City Charter amendments on the Nov. 4 ballots should be rejected.
It really is that simple. The worst of the amendments would partially dismantle the city’s 62-year-old council-manager form of government and undermine the crucial independence of Tacoma Public Utilities – all without evidence of any real need for change.
Let’s run through a checklist:
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Does Tacoma have clean city government, free of political patronage and corruption? Check.
Are elected politicians on the council prevented from meddling directly in the operations of city departments like police, fire and public works? Check.
Does city-owned Tacoma Public Utilities provide dependable power and water at rates among the lowest in the region? Check.
Can the City Council fire a city manager for poor performance? Check.
Would charter changes mean more money for fixing potholed city streets, the No. 1 citizen complaint these days? Nope.
What’s afoot here? Some City Council members, particularly the strong-mayor advocates, want to tilt the charter’s careful balance of power toward the council. Two amendments in particular would undercut the executive authority of the city manager and undermine the historic partial autonomy of Tacoma Public Utilities.
The whole point of a council-manager approach is to professionalize the management of city government. The council hires a city manager, sets policy and direction, then keeps out of the way. Some complain the city manager is too powerful. We think putting the city manager’s job on the line is pretty good accountability. Remember city managers Ray Corpuz and Eric Andersen? Fired.
Space doesn’t permit us to address all of the charter proposals. But let’s consider the most troublesome:
• Proposal No. 5 would require council confirmation of city department heads. If the city manager can’t independently choose his own management team, he’s not really in charge. This negates the purpose of having a council-manager form of government.
• Proposal No. 6 would require council confirmation of the TPU director’s appointment and require reconfirmation every two years.
The charter gives the Utility Board – whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council – the sole authority to hire and fire the director. This separation of powers is designed to keep political influence out of utility operations. Yet the council retains considerable authority by having final approval of the TPU budget and rate increases.
Keeping the chief utility executive on such a short political leash with two masters is a prescription for organizational disaster. If this amendment passes, look for more attempts by the council to shift some costs of general government to utility ratepayers – a maneuver the council has unsuccessfully tried at least twice in recent years.
• Proposal No. 8 would change the current term limits for the council in such a way that a two-term council member could be elected mayor and serve a total of 18 years altogether. That’s way too long in office for a non-executive mayor who is supposed to be “first among equals” on the council rather than a career politician.
• Proposal No. 9, which would create a council-appointed salary commission to recommend council pay raises, is unwarranted. Our part-time council members already receive $42,411 a year plus medical, dental, vision and pension benefits. Their salaries automatically increase 2.75 percent a year. Serving on the City Council is not supposed to be a way to make a living.
The remaining amendments are mostly harmless. But this year’s charter review process was so botched and tainted by council influence that voters would do well to reject all of them. There’s a responsible and legitimate way to debate major changes in city government. That’s not what happened this time.
Karen Seinfeld is a former Pierce County Superior Court judge and retired state Court of Appeals judge. David Seago retired in 2008 as editorial page editor for The News Tribune. This article was submitted on behalf of a campaign group, Forward Tacoma, that includes four former Tacoma mayors, seven former City Council members and other civic leaders.