Panel Discussion on Reforming Tacoma’s City Charter

Richard Smaby

On Thursday, April 24, the University of Washington Tacoma Urban Studies Program hosted a panel discussion on reforming Tacoma’s charter. A distinguished and experienced panel engaged in a lively debate over the current proposal by the Charter Review Committee before an audience of more than 50. Does Tacoma’s current council-city manager form of government really need to be changed? Would a stronger mayor be able to provide the leadership necessary to lead Tacoma out of the economic doldrums and political malaise? Would a stronger mayor be subject to being bought by political interest groups? While the debate focused primarily on the form of government, panelists also pointed out that there are a number of less flashy items in the proposal that need to be discussed on their own merits.

The panelists were Bill Baarsma, formerly mayor of Tacoma and history professor at UPS; Michael Sullivan, UWT professor of history; Lyle Quasim, co-chair of Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective; Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow, Tacoma-Pierce County League of Women Voters 1st Vice President; and John Ladenburg, formerly a member of the Tacoma City Council, Pierce County Prosecutor, and Pierce County Executive. Each panelist made a 10 minute opening statement. Then they were invited to respond to comments of the other panelists and finally to questions from the audience. The following comments are composites of what the panelists said at various points.

Bill Baarsma

The city charter mandates a charter review every 10 years. I have been present at previous charter reviews and as mayor experienced firsthand the current form of government.  There is the case in our recent history of a Tacoma city manager who led the city council down the primrose path to fiscal disaster. The current charter is a hodge-podge of amendments to the original charter passed in 1952 that has produced a result that has sexist language and is unclear in many places. Tacoma has several governments: the city council with city manager, the utility board, parks and the port. It is hard to know where the checks and balances are or who is accountable.

The current Charter Review Committee was convened in January of this year. It consists of citizen volunteers. It researched many models of government and settled on a strong mayor-council form with a chief administrative officer (CAO) appointed by the mayor. There are clearly spelled out checks and balances. It is business friendly, organizationally clear, and has a clear vision for the future.

Michael Sullivan

The Northern Pacific railroad created Tacoma in one fell swoop. One day there was swamp, the next a town. There was a mayor and a city council, but the railroad controlled the town in a way similar to a city manager. It was responsible for infrastructure: lights, water, sewage, etc. In 1909 Tacoma adopted a commissioner form of government. Voters approved a council-manager system in 1952.

A strong mayor form of government is good on offense with the ability to lead the city in new directions. The mayor/city-manager system is good on defense, conservative in adopting new programs.

It is a shame that the form of government debate has overshadowed a number of details in the charter, such as that if the city buys waterfront property, it can’t sell it without a vote of the citizens.

Lyle Quasim

We have to ask three questions: 1) Is this the way to govern in the future? 2) Do the voters understand what they would be voting for? 3) Is the proposal cost effective?

Everybody wants strong leadership. A mayor, council and city manager provide that. The city manager encourages neighborhood input. The power of special interests is diffused. Has any business decided not to come to Tacoma because of our form of government?

The checks and balances are clear in the present system. The city council evaluates the city manager and can fire him or her, if found lacking. I witnessed the corruption of a strong mayor in Chicago with Mayor Daley. Where is the proof that the strong mayor form of government is better?

The proposal contains no reference to the cost of the proposed system. We can get the benefits of the smaller tweaks proposed without the high cost.

Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow

I speak for myself, not the League of Women Voters. In 1952 the League spearheaded the campaign to change to a council-city manager form of government. The city manager is not subject to political passions. Strengthen the current form; don’t change it. Keep the at-large council members. Don’t even bring this proposal to the voters.

This proposal wants a full-time mayor and council each with paid staff. We will end up with a council of retirees and professional politicians.

Keep what we have and watch other cities experiment with forms of government.

John Ladenburg

I have seen both forms of government in my experience as a member of the Tacoma City Council for five years and then as Pierce County Executive. Based on that experience I support the strong mayor form of government.

While on the Tacoma City Council I was frustrated by not getting the information I needed for making good decisions. Famously during the WPPSS nuclear energy debacle resulting in the largest municipal bond default in history the city council and the public utility board were kept in the dark.

There are too many independent governing agencies in Tacoma: the city manager, the council, parks department, the port and the utilities. There is no leadership, no unified vision for our city.

There is no accountability in the current system. Large corporations like the city manager system.

In the system we have now the mayor can’t lead by campaigning on issues, because he or she is so weak. We can’t do the big thing.

There is another reform that would make the choice of council members more representative. Currently, there is a mayor, elected by all the voters in the city, and eight council members. Five council members are elected by the citizens of the districts they represent, while three at-large members are chosen by the entire city. The Charter Review Committee is considering recommending changes to this format, including dividing the city into smaller districts and decreasing the number of at-large representatives. The problem with the at-large members is that they get elected by the more active voting districts. So, some districts effectively have more representation on the council than others. I favor doing away with at-large council members altogether.

[The Pierce Progressive will continue to publish articles, action alerts and calendar listings about how, when and where to follow the progress of these deliberations and provide input on the city charter. The Charter Review Committee will present its recommendation to the City Council May 6. The council then has until August to decide whether to put the proposal to the people. Some officials may resist the call to put the recommendations to a vote, preferring to decide themselves how to move into the future. But the citizens have a unique opportunity to shape the way Tacoma is governed and should demand being part of the process.]