Charter review looks to Tacoma’s past to form its future

Tacoma’s Charter Review Committee got an earful of issues to ponder on its task at the Feb. 12 public hearing through a parade of former city council members and former mayors taking to the stand to give their thoughts.

The committee interviewed Mayor Marilyn Strickland, former mayors Karen Vialle, Harold Moss and Doug Sutherland, as well as former council members Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert as part of the committee’s efforts to draft a list of changes to the city’s charter to then be reviewed by the city council in May.

Three main issues arose again and again during the discussion. A possible shift to a “strong mayor” system filled most of the testimony with the balance covering the oversight of Tacoma’s utilities and the level of independence of the city council.

“I am of the camp that it isn’t the what; it’s the who,” Strickland said about her neutral stance on the city’s current council-manager form of government, adding that the current calls for a system that has Tacoma’s mayor playing more of an active role in policy making could be done under the current system as well.

Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas and Sacramento have Tacoma-like council-manager forms of government, while Spokane and Federal Way recently changed to a “strong mayor” system found in Seattle. Both systems have proven records of working and both have evidence of failures, which shows that talking about any change in government is worth the committee’s effort.

“It is worthy of examination and deep study,” Strickland said, adding that any talks about changing the roles of a mayor and council should also include a holistic approach that also looks at the need for term limits, the transparency of government and the involvement of the wider community.

“Some of this is very, very nuanced,” she said.

Vialle served as Tacoma’s mayor in the early 1990s, when the city was struggling with ways to boost economic development of its waterfront and downtown. It also went through a charter review that recommended 13 changes, and all but one were later adopted.

She advocated that the city charter should change the way it hires key department heads like the city attorney, fire chief, police chief and directors of economic development and finance from being appointed by the city manager to one that faces approval by the full council as a way to make those departments more accountable. She also suggested that adding staff to provide administrative support to the city council would help the city run more efficiently.

She considered herself an agnostic on the “strong mayor” question.

“A form of government is only as good as the people who serve in it,” she said.

Moss fell into the camp of supporting the status quo for the most part by saying he doesn’t see the current council-mayor system as being broken the way “strong mayor” supporters do.

“Insofar as governing the community, we have done pretty well,” he said, adding, “I think the ‘we’ is better than the self-imposed ‘I’ (of a strong mayor system). I think the more fingerprints on a knife the better.”

Moss served at a low point in Tacoma’s history that saw vacant blocks of downtown and abandoned landmarks around the city that included Old City Hall, Union Station and the Pantages. The city didn’t need a “visionary” strong mayor to guide the city into what needed to be done. A series of community summits that included some 10,000 people and 250 program suggestions did that.

Sutherland echoed those remarks from the position of being a former mayor under the current system and being a former two-time Pierce County executive that has a system similar to a “strong mayor” form of government.

“I got far less done as the Pierce County executive than I did as the mayor of the City of Tacoma,” he said, noting that personality clashes between Pierce County Council members and between he and the council hampered progress on his policies.

He also cautioned against the creation of a “strong mayor” system because it would duplicate a lot of the work because the mayor would have his or her staffers researching policies while the council would have its own set of staffers doing likewise.

He did suggest the city look into creating a way for customers of Tacoma Public Utilities who live outside of the city limits to have a seat on the utilities board. About half of Tacoma Power’s customers reside outside of Tacoma but have no direct say in its policies, oversight or rates because board members are required to be Tacoma residents. Dramatic changes could cause a customer revolt.

“And that’s not going to be pretty,” he said.

The current charter states that the City Council appoints members to the public utility board that oversees Tacoma Public Utilities and ultimately approves its budget, but has little say over rates.

That independence both helped and hurt ratepayers, many followers of history note.

TPU, for example, passed a short-term rate hike during the energy crisis 15 years ago that sent other cities deeply in debt. Those rate increases were also approved by the City Council. Utility board decisions in the 1970s, however, got the utility invested in Washington Public Power Supply System’s nuclear power plants in Hanford and Grays Harbor County. That decision still ranks among the top failures of government spending in state history and involved more than a dozen other cities to invest in nuclear power plants that were plagued by mismanagement and cost overruns. The roster of “whoops” projects cost ratepayers around the state millions of dollars when the WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds without the creation of a single watt of power. Tacoma eventually paid $40.3 million to settle its share of the debt through a 15-percent surcharge on power bills that came with no added benefit to the city’s power supply.

The Charter Review Committee meets at 7 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday in Room 16 of the Tacoma Municipal Building North, located at 733 Market St. and is set to submit its final recommendations to the city council on May 6.


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