Guest Editorial: Charter Review

// Learn from the past to build a stronger future


Mayor Marilyn Strickland and members of the City Council recently appointed a new Citizens’ Charter Review Committee, as required every 10 years by the City Charter (governing laws for Tacoma). The committee has the responsibility of examining all aspects of the Charter, including consideration of a change in the form of government. No final recommendations to the council will be made until the first week in May.

In the meantime, the committee will be taking testimony, reaching out to stakeholder groups, and holding public hearings. A number of substantive issues have already been discussed in open sessions, including: independent staff, as well as a city attorney for the city council; the manager’s exclusive appointment authority as it relates to department heads (such as the police chief); and the role of Tacoma Public Utilities in relationship to general government.

Shakespeare said it best in “The Tempest” – “…what is past is prologue….” In other words, events in history are the basis from which future events are formed. We cannot formulate a strategy for our future unless we have a firm grasp on what has brought us to where we are today. Therefore, one important part of the Charter review process is an examination of Tacoma’s history, in order to provide a context for recommendations our committee might make. In this regard, I first became keenly interested in Tacoma’s government, and its history, while attending graduate school in Washington, D.C. in the mid 1960’s.

During that time, the city’s second city manager, David Rowlands, was serving as president of the International City Management Association (ICMA) and was quite a player on the national scene during this, the “Great Society” era. Remarkably, Mayor Harold Tollefson was president of the National League of Cities and became known as one of President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite mayors. It was a heady period for Tacoma with federal dollars flowing into the city’s coffers. Then it all came to an abrupt end in 1967.

What followed were three years of intense political turmoil. Tollefson lost his re-election bid in a landslide to State Senator A.L. “Slim” Rasmussen, and later Rowlands was forced to resign, along with popular Police Chief Charles Zittel. Floyd Oles was quickly appointed city manager in a split council vote then abruptly fired on a split vote. And finally, five council members were recalled from office by a two-to-one margin by citizen vote in September of 1970.

I was puzzled by all of this because, when Tacoma’s citizens changed the form of government from the commission system in 1952, political calm and administrative professionalism were supposed to come to the city. And yet the events that characterized the commission era – i.e. recall elections, hiring and firing of police chiefs plus continuous turmoil, mistrust and uncertainty in government – seemed to persist even in the city manager system. I decided to explore the reasons for this ongoing conflict through my doctoral dissertation research.

What I found was that dissention inevitably grew when citizens and important interest groups were consciously left out of the decision-making process. There was a perception by many that important policy discussions were being held in private, that only the North End of town counted and that the city manager was initiating policy and taking on the role of an unelected strong mayor. Even council members committed to the city manager system complained of being considered nothing more than a “statutory nuisance.”

Mayor Gordon Johnston was so concerned by the state of affairs that he called for a charter review committee in 1973. I sat on that committee and chaired a later 1983 body. Citizens’ charter committees were appointed in 1992 and 2004. As a result, the Charter has been amended some 50 times over the past 40 years. And yet, Tacoma faced a recent return to turmoil and dissention with the tragic selection of a police chief, as well as the firing of two city managers by the council.

The following key issues are now before the committee, council and citizens: 1) Is the current system the right fit for today’s Tacoma? 2) Can the charter be improved further by offering more amendments? Or 3) should we recommend a big change to the voters as the city faces the decade ahead?

Bill Baarsma is a former Tacoma mayor and chair of the City of Tacoma’s Charter Review Committee.

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