How would you like to have a Walmart instead of 83 acres of parkland and trails at Wapato Hills? Nuclear waste moving through the Port of Tacoma? No? Well, how about neighborhoods without speed bumps, banners, planters, murals, street lights or a strong voice at every level of local government? No again? Then thank the determined Tacomans who fought for – and occasionally over and at – the neighborhood councils that celebrated their 20th anniversary Sept. 27.
Those councils have accomplished exactly what their founders wanted, and more than a few people in Tacoma’s city government feared: They have been the framework through which the people of Tacoma exercise power.
The idea for the councils aired at a community summit Mayor Karen Vialle convened in 1990. Vialle later asked Elton Gatewood, Lyle Quasim, Skip Vaughn, Jim Walton, Marian Weed and Bill Baarsma to knead the idea into an ordinance to present to Tacoma City Council.
Vaughn, of South Tacoma, and Weed, of Northeast Tacoma, carried grievances to the table, Baarsma said. “They thought that the city was not paying proper attention to their areas, and they had some reason to believe that,” he said. That made a good many city leaders nervous, and Baarsma heard from them.
“The first thing I found was the fear and trepidation with many people in the city bureaucracy,” he said. “Some characterized the whole idea as creating forums for malcontents and naysayers.” The pols had a point. There were plenty of frustrated neighborhood activists out there who had waited too long to be heard. They started venting.
Nancy Davis remembered the first meetings on the East Side after a wary council passed the ordinance forming the eight neighborhood councils.
“Things were so emotional, people would pound the table when they had discussions,” she said. “Things were not coming together well on the issues.”
Enter Elton Gatewood, the city’s liaison with the councils. Gatewood, a veteran community organizer, brought grace, dignity and order to the process. “Under Elton’s guidance we had an annual conference on how to conduct meetings and communicate, a lot of the things that were not known at the grassroots level,” Davis said. “There was an element of education in knowing how to interact with other policy makers.”
As councils encountered issues and developed strategies to deal with them, they passed on the knowledge. It was a job for wonks the likes of Sally Perkins, who dove deep into the city’s zoning and land-use regulations to protect neighborhoods with cheap housing from being exploited.
“We did all kinds of things with getting landlords who shouldn’t be there out of there and sharing our successes and failures with each other and learning more each time,” Davis said. “It was so incredibly useful, but it was one of the things that bored me to death. It was like having to take castor oil.”
The neighborhood councils began collaborating. When the federal Department of Energy put Tacoma on the short list for the port that would take in all inbound nuclear waste for the nation, Baarsma recalled the neighborhood councils and mobilized enough protest to get Tacoma off that list.
When a developer wanted to bulldoze the drumlin and wetlands at Wapato Hills and build a Walmart, they worked together to block the deal and persuade the city to buy the land.
When South Tacoma needed an ally, and money, to buy the old Manitou Community Center, Ginny Eberhardt and the West End Neighborhood Council stepped up. That issue is still live.
That is how it has been with the councils. They earn a benefit, from a park to a grant, then they make it better. Each year, they agree on what their neighborhoods need – banners, speed bumps, streetlights, tools – and apply for the money to pay for them.
Give them money to buy a brush hog to clear blackberry briars, and they do the dirty work. Give them leeway to reclaim a park or a gulch, and they will drive across town for work parties with other councils – over and over.
All of this takes some support from the city. Gatewood has retired, and his successor, Carol Wolfe, has taken on his duties as well as many others. Neighborhood councils have developed the strengths to spin scarce funding into community gold, but they will always need city funding and staff time. Let’s hope city officials remember their multiplier effect as the cutting continues.