Charter Review For Tacoma: The Process Begins

The City of Tacoma is gearing up to begin the substantial undertaking known as Charter Review.

The Charter of the City of Tacoma lays out the rules for the operation of pretty much every aspect of the City in 21 pages. It lays out the workings of the legislative and administrative branches, public utilities, personnel, and matters of general finance. It makes for pretty dry reading, but it's the document that shapes what can be done in the governing of our city, and who has the authority to do it.

At this week's City Council study session staff laid out the proposed framework for beginning the process. Staff recommends the creation of a Charter Review Committee consisting of 15 Tacoma residents, including one youth member. The suggestion for identifying those 15 individuals is that the Mayor and each Council Member recommend one member, with the Mayor appointing the Chair of the Committee, and the Government Performance and Finance Committee recommending the remaining six members.

The committee openings would be advertised, and applications taken through year end 2013. Committee members would be appointed in January, and begin digging in to the review process. Committee recommendations would be made by May 2014, and go to Council to be placed on the ballot in November.

Changes that came out of the last charter review process in 2004 included amendments to allow for the recall of any elected officer of the City, to allow City employees to hold other public offices, and changes regarding initiative petitions and referendums, among others.

Items to be reviewed by the committee could come from a number of sources: the City Attorney; City Council; staff; various committees, boards, and commissions; interested organizations; or the general public. The City will be creating a charter review website and finalizing processes in the coming weeks, and it's time to start thinking about how Tacoma is run.

Do you want to see a strong mayor system in Tacoma? What would you like to see reviewed? Would you want to be on the charter review committee?

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Charles McKenna

I had the honor of serving on the City of Tacoma Charter Review Committee in 2004. It was a great way to learn about the City and what has worked well or not worked for other local governments. It was truly a collaborative group. 

One item to consider for change is the Civil Service Board. The City of Tacoma is unique in that three of the five positions are elected. I would recommend that all of the members be appointed. As a prior elected member of the Board, it is difficult to run for the office as very few people know what the Board does. It also creates the potential that the Board can be stacked with members who are favorable to labor or management. This creates a challenge as the Board is quasi-judicial and hears cases involving terminations and suspensions over 30 days. Ideally the Board should contain an even split between labor and management with one member who can see both sides.

Another item to consider is to clean up the language in the Charter so it is gender neutral, consistent with State/Federal law, etc.

Strong mayor was the main focus in 2004 - but did not survive. I am a strong advocate of the City Manager form of government; especially for cities with population less than 225k.

August 23, 2013 at 2:40 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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NameSusanne Marten

Please elaborate on your view that a city “with a population less than 225K” should not consider a “strong mayor” form of governance.

January 5, 2014 at 9:15 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Charles McKenna

Per the ICMAA Frequently Asked Questions About Council-Manager Form of Government:
A city, town, or county benefits from the council-manager form of government in a number of important ways:
1. Political power is concentrated in the entire governing body. The mayor and council share legislative functions
2. Policy making resides with elected officials, while oversight of the day-to-day operations of the community resides with the manager. In this way, the elected officials are free to devote time to policy planning and development
3. The manager carries out the policies established by the elected governing body with an emphasis on effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery
4. Because decisions on policy and the future of the community are made by the entire governing body rather than a single individual, council-manager governments more often engage and involve their residents in decision making. Residents guide their community by serving on boards and commissions, participating in visioning and strategic planning, and designing community-oriented local government services
5. The form is flexible enough to adapt to local needs and demands. For example, some communities elect their councils at large, while others elect them by district or by a combination of an at-large-and-by-district system

Regardless of whether there is a strong mayor or city manager, a lot is riding on who the person is. It is easier to terminate a poor performing city manager provided there is a majority of the council who agree than it is to recall a poor performing mayor.

For cities/towns with populations less than 5k, they may not be able to afford a city manager or to keep one busy full time. For cities with populations over 225k politics tends to impair the effectiveness of the city manager.

Which form of government to choose should be hotly debated. Voters need to know the plusses and minuses of each form, so they can decide which makes the most sense to them. 

January 28, 2014 at 3:31 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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