Charter review kicks off with controversy

Tacoma’s Charter Review Committee formed on Tuesday when the City Council appointed 15 residents to review the guiding document of city powers and processes.

The council appointed former mayor Bill Baarsma, Theresa Baker, Gary Brackett, Mabel Edmonds, Tim Farrell, Eric Hahn, Charles Horne, Justin Leighton, Mark Martinez, James Merritt, John Messina, Kenneth Miller, Patricia Talton, Catherine Ushka and Justin Van Dyk out of a pool of 52 applicants.

What is interesting about the appointments is that more than half of the committee members live north of State Route 16 in either Council District 1 or 2. Baarsma, Merritt and Messina live in District 1, which encompasses the North End. Baker, Edmonds, Farrell, Hahn and Miller live in North Tacoma’s District 2. Central Tacoma’s District 3 will be represented by Leighton and Talton, while the East Side District 4 will be represented by Brackett, Horne and Ushka. Martinez and Van Dyk will represent South Tacoma’s District 5.

Each council district represents 40,000 Tacomans.

The North Tacoma-heavy committee distribution doesn’t sit well with former City Councilmember and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, who had applied for a committee appointment but wasn’t selected. He lives in District 5.

“I’ve been interested in the city’s charter review since I was on the city council back in the 1980s,” he said. “I don’t know how the committee was selected and why. It certainly wasn’t a public process, and that is a little concerning.”

Each of the nine city council members was allowed to appoint one member each, with the remaining six members of the committee being appointed by a vote of the full council from a list of 14 candidates drafted from the council’s Government Performance and Finance Committee. The committee is comprised of Mayor Marilynn Strickland and council members Marty Campbell, Robert Thoms and Joe Lonergan, who serves as its chairman. The list of 14 candidates was then interviewed and whittled down to six recommendations for appointment.

For comparison, Pierce County also reviews its charter every 10 years. It will form a committee in 2015. The last county committee was elected by voters instead of appointed by the Pierce County Council.

The roster of applicants for the city’s charter committee was certainly extensive, ranging from attorneys, former politicians and journalists to gadfly Robert “the Traveler” Hill and community activists from around the city. But now more than half of the committee live within a few miles of each other and largely represent the more affluent neighborhoods of Tacoma.

Lonergan is all too familiar with the ongoing perception of Tacoma’s affluent neighborhoods getting more representation of committees, but that fact has a lot to do with the pool of applicants. He pointed out that 36 of the 54 candidates came from District 1 and 2. His district only had five applicants, two of whom were appointed, he said. So it is less about a distribution of candidates as it is the need for promoting city service to more people in South Tacoma and the Eastside.

“I think that in some ways it is always part of the discussions and the decisions we make,” Lonergan said of the sense of disparity. “But ultimately, I like to appoint the best people for the job.”

The charter committee is tasked with submitting recommendations to the charter by May 6. One of the big issues under debate will likely be changing the city’s form of government from the Council-Manager system to a Mayor-Administrator system, which has the mayor playing a stronger role in policy making and oversight. The issue is not only a pet project of Baarsma, but it was also the subject during the last review in 2004.

Among the other 23 charter changes suggested a decade ago, 11 were approved by the city council for a general vote. All were approved. Those changes included ways to remove elected officials from office by a recall vote and the ability of residents to change the charter by a public vote through an initiative.

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