Charter Review Committee Recommendations: A Closer Look at Form of Government

On Tuesday the citizen volunteers of Tacoma's Charter Review Committee handed over the recommendations that came out of more than four months, and dozens of meetings to the City Council. The Council accepted the recommendations, including both majority and minority reports. It is now the Council's job to consider everything they've been handed, and make a decision on which of the recommendations to move forward.

Some of the issues, particularly more minor adjustments, can be approved by the Council. For other recommendations the Council will need to decide whether or not to forward them to the voters for a final decision. Of the issues that could be sent to the voters, it's likely that the most discussion will be around the question of whether or not Tacoma should change its form of government.

The Charter Review Committee majority recommendation is to move Tacoma from its current council/manager form of government to a mayor/council/Chief Administrative Officer form, which puts the mayor in the CEO position for the City government. This isn't a traditional "strong mayor" form of government, but it gives the mayor stronger powers over and a more active role in the business of running the City. The strong(er) mayor would have veto power over a council, which the CRC recommends be reduced by one at-large position. The mayor, with the assistance of the CAO would manage administrative offices and departments and prepare and present a budget, budget message, and economic development plans for the City.

In considering a change in Tacoma's form of government - a question that was on the table from day one - the CRC considered 86 other cities around the country, looking for any correlation between form of government and measurable criteria. It found none, as stated in the Majority Recommendations report.

The form of government does not correlate to municipal bond rating, to corruption among elected or appointed officials, to crime, poverty, education attainment, ethnic mix, prevalent political party, or size of city. There simply is no correlation. None. The subcommittee found no data to suggest the form of government causes or is caused by these factors.

This left one of two conclusions; either the form of government is simply a historic accident; or it is an expression of political values. The subcommittee chose to believe the latter, and so evaluated the forms of government in light of a set of values likely to be important to most Tacomans.

Of those values, the CRC majority lists the right of the people to elect those who govern, accountability, and strategic leadership. The rationale here is that by putting a directly elected mayor in the CEO position, accountability is strengthened, giving the voters a clearer idea of who is responsible for decisions and direction at the City.

Among the dissenting minority of the CRC on the issue of form of government change were the four women on the committee. Minority opinions delivered to Council along with the majority recommendation make several arguments against a change in Tacoma's form of government. One objection from the Minority Report written by Theresa S Baker and Catherine Ushka points to flaws in the process, specifically in which community stakeholder voices were included in the conversation.

The vote for a change in FOG by the majority was no surprise after Chair Baarsma continued endlessly about his problems with his City Manager and gave reason after reason why the Council did not act.

The majority of the scheduled testimony was from elected or appointed officials versus testimony from all echelons of our community i.e., community activists, neighborhood council members, students, voters without a conflict or political interest, or business leaders.  This glaring omission assumes that only elected or appointed officials benefit from the framework of the charter which is simply not true.  

When we finally received input from these groups via town meetings it was quickly marginalized by several committee members. 

Questions of process aside, dissenting members of the CRC also challenged the assertions of greater accountability and stronger leadership offered by the majority opinion. Baker and Ushka warn that the change could have the oposite intended impact, disenfranchising some voices, and privileging others.

The Tacoma City Club report recommended changes to the charter which would achieve the ends envisioned by the majority of the CRC without changing the basic structure of the current FOG.  The ICMA states “Under the strong mayor form, political power is concentrated in the mayor, which means that other members of the elected body relinquish at least some of their policy‐making power and influence.  This loss of decision‐making power among council members can have a chilling effect on the voices of neighborhoods and city residents.”  We believe it is absolutely crucial to the political health of the city that all neighborhoods and city residents have a strong voice in both the day to day operations  of the city and the plans for the future.

Their opinion goes on to further cite the City Club report, saying that any shortcomings in the current system could be remedied by the Council and Mayor taking a more assertive leadership within the current system

Even if you don't have time to slog through the many-colored track-changes document that is the recommended revised charter, we highly recommend reading both the majority recommendations (pdf) and minority reports (pdf) as posted on the Charter Review webpage. They give some good insight into the process and proposed changes, and reference more specific influencing factors than we have space for here.

So, at the end of the day, has any particular side won you over? Do you have a position?

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John Messina

I am a member of the committee.  I favored changing the form of government to one which would allow the people to elect the chief administrative person (mayor), which would give greater power to the council including the power to impeach the mayor if warranted and other powers usually not give to councils.  In addition, the mayor is required to nominate a person to be chief administrative officer (CAO) for approval of the council. The CAO must have the same qualifications of a city manager. This hybrid form of government gives the people the right to choose their leader, a full-time council with considerable policy-making power and the same professional management which Tacoma has enjoyed from SOME of its city managers.  So, I hope the council has enough confidence in the people to allow them to make this choice that was recommended to the council by a 9-6 majority of the committee.  “Let the People Vote!”

May 13, 2014 at 11:19 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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“Let the people vote” he says, about a scheme put forth by group of men who were “appointed”, are not accountable themselves, and admitted they didn’t listen to the people, but believe their newly fashioned idealistic plan is superior to both a CM and a Strong Mayor. I say give us a real plan with accountability, not some modified inbred & hybrid stronger council dream.

May 13, 2014 at 3:30 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I agree with the committee’s recommendation—a full time mayor will make our city’s civic debates more lively, which is good for democracy.  And Mr. 42, this committee did what committees do:  they produced a report for the Council’s consideration.  The committee is completely accountable to the city council, and if they city council wishes (I hope they do), the voters too.

May 15, 2014 at 9:39 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I think we have to be the only major port city in the United States that has a weak mayoral system in place.  It makes no sense from an economic devleopment point of view to have the system we have.

May 16, 2014 at 10:34 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I agree, Xeno.  Speaking of the Port, it will likely take a mayor with some real authority to overcome Port/Sperry objections get more appropriate zoning in place along the east side of the Foss as well as a quality bike/ped path on the missing link between the Foss and Old Town.  The council was quite risk averse the last time these issues were before them.  Baby steps aren’t enough when neighboring cities are making improvements more aggressively.

May 16, 2014 at 11:26 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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June 12, 2018 at 3:59 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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