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Guest Article: Thriller

The internet has been a bit spotty for us in our corner of the world this week so we are a bit behind. Our first guest opinion piece comes from Ken Miller. Do you want to contribute to the conversation? Contact us and let's talk.

If Tacoma had zombies - if, I’m saying - and the zombies had a favorite political issue, it would be our form of government. The topic comes up, dies, and returns so often it should have its own show. Imagine ex-mayors Bill Baarsma and Brian Ebersole with stitched faces and blank stares, City Manager T.C. Broadax deploying the camouflaged League of Women Voters.

Now THAT’S entertainment.

Last Spring the City’s Charter Review Committee proposed changing the form of government, from the current council-manager form to the so-called strong mayor form. This was one of a dozen Charter changes recommended to the City Council; it was the only one the Council didn’t forward to the voters for a decision.

We’re raising the question again, this time gathering signatures to put the question on the November ballot. While it’s possible to complicate the form-of-government discussion, it’s really pretty easy. Like A,B,C.

A. We the people. We. In a democracy the voters choose their leaders. We choose the County Executive. We choose the Governor. And we choose the President. Sort of. The founding, uh, fathers didn’t exactly trust us, so they created the Electoral College. We elect intermediaries, Electors, who are supposed to be wiser than us. The Electors pick the President.

Just like the council-manager system. We elect the Council; council members pick the City Manager. And he - it’s almost always “he” - runs the city.

B. Management: necessary but not sufficient. Good management mean stability. The books balance. The trains run on time. Good management is essential.

But where do the trains go? And who wants to ride them? Those aren’t management questions. The City Manager can’t answer them; and he can’t mobilize the will of the people. How to move the people forward, together, is a leadership question.

Bringing us to…

C. Leadership by Committee. Which is unlikely. Really unlikely. Our Mayor is popular, and rightly so. She represents us well. But in the council-manager system, the mayor is just another vote on the council, where it takes five votes to decide anything.

And then the Council has to ask the Manager to carry out the decision. You see, the Council has no staff. So guess who’s more powerful: the people we elect who have to ask the manager for help? or the manager, who don’t elect but has 2,000 employees?

Look, this is a great system if you want to go slow. Really, really slow. If you like the status quo. If you think government should fill potholes, not create a vaulting vision. Let’s be clear: this is not a great system for taking Tacoma to the next level.

Yeah, the fear-mongers talk about Mayor Daley and Boss Tweed. They hint at mob rule. They ask, “do you trust those people to choose the most powerful person in Tacoma?”

Actually, yes. Yes I do.

Because the fearful ones forget strong mayors like Rahm Emanuel, who’s making Chicago the healthiest city in America. Or Willie Brown, who proved San Francisco could embrace growth and equity.

That’s why the issue is clawing its way to the ballot. The form of government is too important; it won’t lay down and die. Tacoma can be a great city, with strong leadership to go along with good management.

It’s not about fear; it’s the future.


Ken Miller served on the 2014 Charter Review Committee and chaired its Form of Government sub-committee. He cannot moon walk.

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