How Sausage is Made in Tacoma

Michael Kagan

As mandated by law, every 10 years the Charter of the City of Tacoma must be reviewed. Early this year, a panel of citizens was appointed to examine the City’s 'constitution' in order to make recommendations, if any, for potential changes to be considered by the City Council. These brave, selfless, committed souls sacrificed countless hours of family time, attention to their businesses, and opportunities for leisure-time activities to go above and beyond the typical civic duty. After more than 60 meetings, a number of proposals emerged. Not all had universal support, with strong feelings being expressed on both sides of most issues. Dozens of suggestions were forwarded to the City Council for consideration. Some could be seen as relatively minor, such as removing gender-based language from the Charter, while others were major, highlighted by revamping the City’s form of governance.

The question then became, should the City Council rule on these recommendations itself, or pass some along to the voters for their approval this November? At the council’s meeting Tuesday, June 10, citizens were given up to three minutes each to voice their opinions on any of these potential amendments. Many speakers rejected the possible change from the Mayor/Council/Manager format Tacoma has had for generations to a structure of a Strong Mayor/Council/Chief Administrative Officer, saying, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!" Benefits of the latter were questionable, they said, and costs of the change and of operating in the future are unknown. Some people reminded the Council of problems with previous managers, who are appointed by the Council, not elected by the voters. While it is possible to fire a City Manager, something that has been done twice in the past eleven years, it is more difficult to remove a mayor from office, though that has been done within living memory. The current City Manager is the fourth in the past 12 years, counting two who served on an interim basis.

In addition, speakers applauded Council members Campbell and Boe for their efforts to finance city council races with public funds. If this were to take effect, more people would be able to consider running for office. It would be much easier to raise small amounts of money from a few hundred voters than the current process of seeking large donations from wealthy and corporate donors.

Changing term limits for the mayor and council members, along with a reconfiguration of how members are elected from districts or 'at large' are other issues the Council is mulling over and that speakers discussed.

Tuesday, June 17, another public comment period was scheduled for 19 amendments the Council is considering submitting to the voters in November. A few hours before the meeting was to begin, the Council decided not to let the public speak. Of the 16 items suggested by the Charter Review Committee, one proposed by a city department, and two offered by the Mayor and Council, no action was taken on six, two failed (including changing the form of government and public campaign financing), and eleven were slated to be discussed at the regular Council meeting on Tuesday, July 15.

This means that the Council decided not to seek the wisdom and counsel of Tacoma voters as to what form of government the City should have. Nor will the people determine whether or not campaigns for City Council will be publicly financed. The status quo will continue, unless and until the populace demands changes through the initiative process.

At the July 15 meeting, the Council will determine whether or not to put each of the 11 amendments on the ballot in November. They could also choose to pass these proposals themselves, or to vote them down. For those who believe in democracy and allowing voters to determine their future, it may be worth attending this meeting. If nothing else, you will see how the sausage is made.

The agenda of the June 17 meeting has the list of "Proposed Amendments" discussed. The Council voted to discuss at the meeting on July 15 whether or not to submit each of them to the voters in November, EXCEPT for the following: They took NO ACTION on #8, #10, #11, #15, #17, and #19, as no Council member put forth a motion to discuss them on July 15. #16 and #18 failed. That is, motions were made and seconded, they discussed the issues, took roll call votes, and they did not pass. Thus, July 15, there will be discussion, aimed at allowing voters to decide in November, on #1-7, #9, #12-14.