Guest Editorial: Charter review offers prime opportunity for change


I was not born in Tacoma but I was "Made In Tacoma."

While my Dad's ship was being built at Mojean‑Ericson Shipyard, he and Mom lived a 711 South 'K' (now MLK). The ship was commissioned in October 1944 and Dad sailed off to Iwo Jima and Mom went home to Port Angeles quite pregnant with me!

Since the 1890's various members of the Johnston family have lived in the city of Tacoma. My grandparents raised my Mom and her siblings at 2410 N. Union, My grandfather's brothers lived in South Tacoma and worked for Tacoma Power as linemen. We loved visiting my dear Aunt Florence because she lived on the top floor of the Park Terrace Apartments overlooking Wright Park. "Those people look just like ants down there!" my brother Steve and I would yell pointing out the window. Port Angeles' highest building was a mere three stories.

I moved to Tacoma almost 35 years ago. I changed jobs and I could have picked any city to live in from Seattle South to Portland – I picked Tacoma. Not once have I regretted that decision! Tacoma is funky – diverse – full of character (and characters) – great parks – beautiful, unique neighborhoods, museums, universities and "The Mountain!" I could go on. As my grandmother Foley used to say, "Tacoma is where it is happening." But there is one thing about Tacoma that is not good. Tacoma's city government stinks!

Maybe that is a bit harsh, but over the past 30‑plus years I have watched as it lumbers slowly along with a philosophy out of an Andy Hardy movie: "Hey, I know, my Dad's got a barn, let's put on a show!" There is no big picture, just one big idea after another from a city council with little community input and seldom any follow through. The reason? Because the city council has no power under the current city charter that puts the city manager and the bureaucrats who work for him in charge. You want to know what happens when bureaucrats get hold of a reasonably simple directive? Just look at the marijuana initiative after it was turned over the to bureaucrats!

But Tacomans have an opportunity to change the situation this year. Every 10 years the Tacoma City Charter comes up for review. The City Charter is 60 years old. That means we are running a city of over 200,000 citizens with a 1955 system meant for populations under 50,000. apolitical scheme not fully thought out developed at the turn of the century. Under it your council member is not allowed to take a problem to a department head directly but has to go through the city manager. Think for a second here – who was it that you elected to represent you – the council member or some bureaucrat?

Here is the good news. A charter review committee has been confirmed by the Tacoma City Council and several of them are thinkers who give me hope that Tacoma may join the ranks of democratic governments. Former Mayor Bill Baarsma will be the chair, and Baarsma, a retired University of Puget Sound professor, knows more about Tacoma's history, government and personalities than anyone on the face of the earth! (And that is not an overstatement!) Jim Merrit, who narrowly lost his bid for mayor four years ago, will be a member of the committee. Jim had many great ideas during his campaign.

Unfortunately I also recognize names on the list of the "usual suspects" – those who often show up on appointed commissions and boards over and over. People who are "safe" and won't cause problems for those in the city who would just like to see things just continue down the same old path.

Why would I rather see Mayor Marilyn Strickland running the City of Tacoma than a city manager? Easy – because if she messed up we know who did it and the next election is never more than four years away. We can blame the mayor and the city council all we want now and throw everyone of them out of office tomorrow and it won’t change a damn thing. They are only an advisory board!

Ask yourself this. Who knows the ins and outs of the City of Tacoma best? Mayor Strickland or a city manager from Texas or Iowa or wherever they find these people (after spending thousands on a "nationwide search"). The answer is easy.

Tacoma deserves a modern representative democratic government and we have an opportunity to get one this year. Contact your city council member and tell him/her, "DEMOCRACY FOR TACOMA NOW!"

William F. (Bill) Johnston is a Vietnam-era veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a graduate of Western Washington University with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and history and a Masters in political science. He is a first-place award recipient for Excellence in Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists and is a current member of the National Writers Union – UAW 1981 (AFL-CIO).

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