Charter Changes: Some Proposals Move Forward, Some… Won’t

At a special meeting this week, the Tacoma City Council discussed and made some decisions on 19 proposed changes to Tacoma's Charter. The proposed changes were on a variety of topics, from more-or-less mundane housekeeping issues of updating the Charter to comply with state law, to bigger picture questions that would change the way Tacoma's government operates. The issues were grouped by subject matter, as they might potentially appear on a ballot, if the Council decides to pass them along to the voters. The test as to which proposed changes appear together is whether or not there is a "rational unity" in the subject matter.

At Tuesday's meeting, each of the 19 items was raised. Some were discussed and either moved forward by the Council to the next round of discussion, or tabled for lack of support. Others were dismissed without debate as not having support of the Council. Those that move forward are scheduled to appear on the regular council meeting agenda for July 15. At that time the Council will vote on whether or not to pass them along to the voters.

Proposed Amendments to the City Charter as submitted by the Charter Review Committee

1. Adding gender neutral language, and deleting obsolete provisions and language. - Pretty much what it says - changing "councilmen" to "councilmembers," and getting rid of "he/she"s and "his/her"s.

This is one of those housekeeping proposals. It moves forward to July 15 with little comment.


2. Aligning anti-discrimination provisions with City and state law. - Also pretty straightforward, adding "color," "ancestry," "gender identity, sexual orientation," and "familial status, honorably discharged veteran or military status" to classes protected from discrimination.

Again, this simply aligns the Charter with what is already law in Tacoma and in Washington State. It moves forward to July 15.


3. Aligning election provisions with state law. - Adjusting language around council and mayoral vacancies, removing or changing existing language around timelines and other parts of the process to fill vacancies.

Another housekeeping item, making what Councilmember Campbell called "common sense changes" to Tacoma's election procedures. It moves forward to July 15.


4. Concerning the effective date of emergency ordinances. - This is one we've been expecting since notable snafus like the emergency moratorium sparked by, but unable to halt the development of Tacoma's Walmart. The proposed change is fairly simple - removing "after publication," and replacing it with "upon passage," so that the revised section reads in part "Ordinances passed as emergency measures, or relating to local improvements and assessments and authorization of bonds therefore, or adopting annual budgets, or levying taxes, or making appropriations shall take effect immediately upon passage."

This is basically a housekeeping issue, but as Councilmember Boe pointed out, it's one we've gotten stung by in the past, so it's good to see it move forward to the 15th.


5. Establishing a salary commission to determine Mayor and Council salaries. - Removing the current system which pays each council member $25 for each day's attendance at Council meetings, not to exceed $1,200 per year. The proposal would replace that system with a seven-person Citizen Commission on Elected Salaries, which would be responsible for determining the salaries and compensation for the mayor and council members. Five of the seven would be "selected by lot" by the County Auditor from registered voters in each of Tacoma's five council districts following policies and procedures to be established by the Auditor. The other two - one with HR expertise, and the other with legal expertise - would be appointed by the mayor and approved by council.

Here we got a little more discussion. Councilmember Mello expressed a desire for more discussion on the topic between now and the next vote, and Councilmember Campbell expressing concerns that creating a commission might be unnecessary and could lead to unintended impacts on the budget. Despite less than full support, the item will move forward to July 15, with Campbell being the one vote against further consideration at this time. We have to say we'd like to see some more conversation about how the commission would operate too.


6. Concerning City Council powers and duties relative to the Public Utility Board. - We're sure to hear more detail on this one, but some of the proposed changes include reducing board member terms from five to three years, and limiting the number of terms served to three. The appointment of the Director of the Board would be subject to city council confirmation, and his/her position would be subject to review by the rest of the board every two years. The Charter Review Committee has also proposed giving the Tacoma City Council the authority to make changes to or even to reject the annual budget developed by the board, and to propose programs or projects related to operation of the utilities. Under the proposed changes, the council would have the power to adopt its own budget for the utility if the board cannot draft a budget that it finds satisfactory within 45 days of the first submission. The Council would further be empowered to call for a performance audit of utilities or related operations at least every five years, and every 10 years a joint committee of city council and utility board members would be responsible for hiring a consultant for an analysis of the utilities' assets, management, ownership, organization, lines of business, strategic direction, and other relevant topics.

This item has drawn a lot of attention so far in public conversations, so we knew it was unlikely to sail through. The council broke the larger group of changes to the Utility Board into smaller chunks, considering only section 4.18, with the proposed changes giving the council the authority to confirm and reconfirm of the Director of Utilities. Mayor Strickland expressed support for the changes, saying that as the director is the highest paid person on City payroll, and that he/she has authority over utility decisions which can have a big impact on the public, it makes sense for the position to be accountable directly to the council. Councilmember Boe framed the question differently, saying that he would not be supporting the change, as the utility is effectively a business, and should be run as a business, not a co-op. The item was moved forward to the July 15 meeting, with Boe and Lonergan voting against it.


7. Concerning Mayor and City Council term limits. - The Charter Review Committee recommendation on this one is to move from a 10 consecutive year total cap for any individual as either council member or mayor to a more generous maximum of two full years as council member and two full terms as mayor, for a possible total of up to 16 consecutive years in office. Item 19 proposes an even more generous change to term limits for mayor and council.

An amendment was proposed and added to the item, making a change to take into account situations in which a council member has been appointed mid-term. The new wording, from what we heard is "No person shall be allowed to serve on the Council for more than ten (10) consecutive years, as a Councilman, and more than two full terms as Mayor." The new language essentially adds two terms as mayor to the existing 10 year limit for total time as any combination of council and mayor. That new language moves forward to July 15, with Councilmember Thoms voting against it.


8. Adopting a new article, “Powers and Responsibilities of the People.” - Among the changes proposed in this section is the addition of "and responsibilities" to the existing "powers of the people" section, beginning with this new language:

We, the people of Tacoma, recognize that civil engagement is vital to our underlying success as a city and hereby reserve unto ourselves certain powers listed in this section of the Charter, and assert that any powers not delegated to the City of Tacoma by this Charter are reserved to the people. 

The responsibilities of the people include to cast an informed vote, respect and obey the law. participate in your local community, and serve your City when called upon. 

There are other changes to language in the initiative and referrendum processes, and to the makeup of the Planning Commission, which would go from nine to 11 board members.

This item was not addressed, and will not be moving forward.


9. Deleting the prohibition of new cemeteries, mausoleums, or crematories. - This would simply delete an outdated section of the Charter that prohibits the establishment of any new cemeteries, mausoleums, or crematories in Tacoma.

This is another housekeeping type item. It will be back on July 15.


10. Adding requirements for Landmarks Preservation Commission, Neighborhood Councils and Business Districts. - This proposal would add language and requirements for the three categories where none currently exists in the Charter.

  • Landmarks Preservation Commission - The proposed language lays out the purpose and makeup of the LPC, but leaves the nitty gritty of numbers, powers, and duties of members to the ordinances which currently govern it.
  • Neighborhood Councils - The changes also lay out the purpose and role of independent neighborhood councils and of a Community Council as acting as advisory entities to the mayor, council, and city manager.
  • Business Districts - The changes would also add language describing the intent of the Neighborhood Business Program, establishing Neighborhood Business District Associations to support each of Tacoma's business areas, and a Cross District Association to act as a "peer coalition" of the independent district associations, and acting as advisors to the mayor, council, and city manager.

Only the LPC part of this proposal was addressed. Councilmember Boe noted that the land use aspect of the LPC is tied to the Planning Commission, so it seems to make sense to have both included in the Charter. The LPC item moves forward to the July 15 meeting; the others will not.


11. Requiring financial interest disclosures from certain officers and employees. - This recommendation would also add a new section to the Charter, this one requiring that all City officers or employees with authority to approve contracts totalling $50,000 or more annually to file a personal financial affairs statement with the Public Disclosure Commission. The same would be required of appointed members of citizen boards, commissions, or committees with authority to approve contracts or budgets. The disclosures would be publicly available.

This item also failed to move forward, with no discussion.


12. Concerning public employee participation in residential conservation, infrastructure and environmental programs. - This recommendation adds language that would allow officers or employees of the City to take advantage of the benefits of utility and other conservation programs, and to enter into unpaid, voluntary contracts without being in conflict with ethics rules, where the benefits are also available to the general public.

Councilmember Thoms pointed out that current language prohibits City employees from participating in voluntary, unpaid programs, such as volunteering to maintain the rain gardens on Pacific Avenue. The item passed, and will be moving forward to the July 15 meeting.


13. Deleting residency and certain citizenship requirements for City employment. - State law prohibits employers from using residency as a condition of employment, so this change would remove that section of the current charter. If it wished, the council could later add through ordinance a system that would award bonus points for residency at the time of application for employment.

The existing citizenship requirement is overly broad, as the City can only require citizenship of police and fire employees, and that requirement is already covered at the federal level. The residency requirement is difficult to enforce in any meaningful way, based on state and federal laws. This item would clean up the Charter relating to those two issues. It moves forward to the July 15 meeting.


14. Expanding City Council authority to hire, appoint and confirm staff. - This change would give the Council the authority to hire staff to report directly to council, not to exceed a one-to-one ratio of staff to council members. It would also require confirmation department heads by council, and put the council in charge of reviewing the city attorney's performance and reconfirming his/her appointment.

The council only considered section 3.4, leaving the rest unaddressed. Changes to 3.4 would require council approval for department heads. Changes to 3.4 move forward to July 15, the other proposed changes do not.


15. Creating a Citizen Commission on Redistricting. - Every 10 years council districts are required by state law to be re-districted. This change would have given a five member citizen group responsibility for redrawing those lines, dividing Tacoma into its five districts as evenly as possible by population.

This item didn't get any discussion. It will not move forward.


16. Changing the government form from Council-Manager to Mayor-Council-Chief Administrative Officer. - This most hotly debated of the proposed changes would have changed Tacoma's form of government from a council-manager form to a mayor-council-CAO form. Changes would have put the mayor in the executive position, with a smaller council and a less powerful city manager. The proposed form is a little different from a traditional strong mayor format. Read more here.

There was a fair amount of discussion of this item, but some major points emerged that led to the Council's decision. First, as Councilmember Boe and others noted, in all the public comment in support of sending this item to the voters most of the comment had been that it should go to the voters, but little or no convincing explanation seemed to have been given of why a change was necessary or why the proposed form would be better. Councilmember Lonergan expressed confusion over why this was billed as the best option according to the National Civic League, when in fact the NCL lists the council-manager system we have as its first choice, with the proposed form as a distant second.

The issue of the voters having an evenly distributed power to elect a quorum of the council was also mentioned, along with council concerns that a change to a different distribution would lead to an uneven balance of power between the districts. Councilmember Lonergan also noted that it's worth looking at the lack of consensus among committee members, as well as the lines along which that division took shape. Councilmember Campbell pointed out that "honoring the work of the committee" by sending the proposal forward would only honor some of the committee, not the strong minority voice against it.

Several council members also voiced concern that a change in government at this point in time - particularly one that might create uncertainty with a several year long implementation - would not be good for any positive momentum Tacoma's economy has.

Councilmember Thoms noted that the most salient issue for him on the topic was that he had yet to see a good explanation of whether this change could save money, or at least remain revenue neurtal, and until that could be sorted out, he didn't see how it could be sent to the voters. Mayor Strickland said she had been expecting a more nuanced approach by the committee, and that she was disappointed both that they had not come closer to a consensus amongst themselves, and that a discussion of cost was missing.

Overall the consensus was that the discussion of form of government was a good thing to have happen, but that this was not the time, and this was most likely not the form for that change to take.

Council members Mello and Ibsen offered a different take, with Mello saying that changes of this magnitude should be considered at a time, like now, when we are not in a crisis, and Ibsen sticking with the send-it-to-the-voters line.

The item will not be moving forward for further consideration. Council members Ibsen and Mello were the only two voices in favor of moving the item forward.


Proposed Amendments to the City Charter as submitted by City Departments

17.  Allowing the City to charge for certain employment tests. - This proposal didn't come from the Charter Review Committee, so we haven't heard discussion of it to this point.

...And apparently we won't be hearing any discussion. The item was not moved forward, and there was no discussion.


Proposed Amendments to the City Charter as submitted by the Mayor and City Council

18.  Adopting a program for publicly financed campaigns. - This proposal was added by Councilmember Campbell late in the process, so we haven't heard much discussion of it yet.

Councilmember Campbell said brought the issue forward as a result of public interest following the Citizens United discussion, among other things. Campbell described it as a way of lowering the threshold to involvement in political processes. Other council members expressed support for the idea of taking a step to removing at least some of the necessity for fundraising from the process of running for elected office, with Councilmember Boe expressing the opinion that how good you are at fundraising shouldn't be the first consideration when approaching a run for office, and Councilmember Mello saying that money and power should not be synonymous.

Despite apparent wide support for the idea, the issue ultimately failed to move forward, due to lack of specifics, including costs, at this time. This doesn't mean, however, that the issue is dead. Council can bring it back outside of the current Charter discussion, so we may hear more of this in the future.

19.  Concerning Mayor and City Council term limits. - Where the Charter Review Committee proposed an extension from 10 years to two terms each as council member and mayor (item 7), Mayor Strickland has proposed an even bigger shift to three full terms as council member and three full terms as mayor, for a possible total of 24 consecutive years in office.

Mayor Strickland's proposal didn't get discussed, and will not be moving forward. In the earlier discussion.

So, there you have it. Items 1 through 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 14 will move forward at least in part. Items 8, 11, and 15 through 19 are done. 

Any surprises? Any disappointments? Anything you want to hear more about?

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