Tacoma City Charter Amendments: Arguments For & Against

Our Voters' Pamphlet showed up yesterday, and from what we hear ballots are in the mail headed to mailboxes everywhere. The big items for Tacoma voters on this November's ballot will be the 12 proposed amendments to the City Charter.

Some of the items fall more into the category of "housekeeping" changes - bringing the Charter into alignment with state or federal law, or simply 21st century realities. Nevertheless, the voters must vote on these changes, along with the more controversial changes to the structure of Tacoma's City government.

We wrote about the amendments during the Charter Review process earlier this year, but with the election coming around, we could all do with a little refresher. These are brief summaries of what appears in the Voters' Pamphlet, which is always a great read, and this year it certainly doesn't disappoint.

1. Elections - The Charter currently contains outdated language that conflicts with State law and City practices related to elections. This amendment would update those sections of the Charter.

  • The "for" argument: This amendment cleans up obsolete language dating back to 1953, when cities decided their elections procedures. Elections procedures are now governed by state law.
  • The "against" argument: The amendment would do away with a requirement that the City publish a voter's pamphlet. 

2. Gender Neutral Language - The Charter currently includes gender-specific language, as well as obsolete references to the position of "Personnel Officer," and outdated provisions for the succession of government.

  • The "for" argument: This amendment would bring Charter language into the 21st century, adopting language that treats everyone equally.
  • The "against" argument: In 1992 voters approved a change that makes this amendment unnecessary: "Words importing the masculine gender shall be extended to the feminine gender." 

3. Discrimination Protection - This amendment would add color, ancestry, gender-identity, sexual orientation, familial status, honorably discharged veteran, and military status to the list of classes protected from discrimination in City employment.

  • The "for" argument: The City already complies with federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws. This amendment brings the Charter up to date with these laws and practice.
  • There is no "against" argument.

4. Emergency Ordinances - This amendment would allow emergency ordinances passed by the City Council to take effect immediately upon passage, rather than after publication, as is currently the case. (Think Walmart...)

  • The "for" argument: The two day delay between passage and publication dates to a time before the internet, which now allows entities a "loophole" through which to slip after legislation has been passed, but before it can take effect. 
  • The "against" argument: The City's lack of proper planning does not an emergency make.

5. Council Confirmation of Department Heads - This amendment would require Council approval for the appointment of department heads. The Charter currently gives the City Manager sole authority to appoint and remove all officers and employees under his jurisdiction.

  • The "for" argument: This change would provide a check on the City Manager's power to appoint, much as Presidential appointments have checks on them. It also gives the City Council greater responsibility for the way the City is run, by giving them a stake in who is chosen to run it.
  • The "against" argument: The City Council should appoint a professionally trained City Manager, who agrees with Council vision and plans for the City. That manager should be allowed to manage.

6. Council Confirmation of the Director of Utilities - This amendment would require City Council confirmation of the Director of Tacoma's public utilities and reconfirmation of the position every two years, following performance reviews. The Director is currently appointed by the Public Utility Board.

  • The "for" argument: The Director of Utilities is currently the highest-paid City employee, and controls 38% of the City budget; the position should be directly accountable to our elected officials. The current structure makes the position vulnerable to influence by big corporations.
  • The "against" argument: Our public utilities work well as currently structured, with an independent board. Inserting the Council into the process would create uncertainty in management, and leave the position vulnerable to political pressures. The current Charter already gives Council control over budgets and rates.

7. Landmarks Preservation Commission - This amendment would add a requirement for a Landmarks Preservation Commission to Tacoma's Charter.

  • The "for" argument: The important role the citizen-based LPC plays in protecting and restoring Tacoma's built environment should be affirmed and formalized through inclusion in the City Charter. Inclusion acknowledges the key role of preservation in shaping Tacoma's identity, urban design, economic development, and quality of life.
  • The "against" argument: The Charter is the basic framework for City government; details like this should be left to ordinance. 

8. Council Term Limits - This amendment would change term limits for elected officials from the current 10 consecutive year limit, which includes both years served as council member and as mayor, to a limit of 10 years as council member plus two full consecutive terms as mayor.

  • The "for" argument: The change would allow voters to vote for an experienced council member to serve as mayor. Voters are still in charge with this change, and they should have the option of voting for experienced leaders.
  • The "against" argument: This effectively extends term limits from 10 years to as many as 18 years on the dais. Term limits make room for new leadership, and a Council that is more representative of Tacoma, rather than privileging insiders, incumbents, and special interests.

9. Citizen Commission on Elected Salaries - Salaries for the Council are currently established by ordinance, as adopted by the City Council. This amendment would add a commission made up of members of the public - five selected by lot from eligible Tacoma voters, and two individuals with legal or human resources management experience, to be selected by the Mayor and confirmed by Council.

  • The "for" argument: Currently the Council decides salaries for future councils and mayors. Although they do not set their own salaries, the process is still subject to political pressures. The establishment of a commission would be in line with practices at the county and in other cities. The citizen commission would have the freedom to adjust salaries up or down based on budget requirements.
  • The "against" argument: State law says the Charter is no place for salaries, and there should be no expectation that the commission would constrain salary increases.

10. Cemeteries, Mausoleums, & Crematories - This amendment would lift the prohibition against new cemeteries, mausoleums, and crematories currently in place in the Charter.

  • The "for" argument: The rules currently in place are obsolete and should be removed, as cemeteries are now covered by zoning laws. Leaving the ban in place could impact the ability of a church to establish a new columbarium, which get included in the prohibition.
  • The "against" argument: Tacoma doesn't need any more cemeteries.

11. City Employee Contracts - The Charter currently prohibits City employees from having any direct or indirect financial interest in contracts of the City. This amendment would allow for employees to contract for utility services, conservation measures, and other programs available to the general public, and otherwise allowed for by State ethics laws.

  • The "for" argument: An unintended consequence of the current rules is that City employees cannot participate in conservation programs that the general public has access to (e.g. TPU programs that encourage homeowners to make long-term investments in the rehabilitation and reuse of historic properties, or energy efficiency programs)
  • There is no "against" argument.

12. Citizenship Requirement for City Employment - The Charter currently requires US citizenship and Tacoma residency for all City employees. This amendment would remove those requirements for all employees, although it would leave in place citizenship requirements for some positions based on State law. 

  • The "for" argument: Even if you support citizenship and city residency for all employees, the current rules do not achieve that. The City can only require residency at the date of application for employment or hiring; it cannot fire people if they move, and citizenship can only be legally required of firefighters and police officers. The Civil Service Board can find a way to recognize the importance of residency through ordinance.
  • The "against" argument: Don't outsource City jobs to non-residents who don't have to live by the laws that govern Tacoma. We can require that employees live in Tacoma on the day they are hired.

These are obviously very brief summaries of often complex questions and arguments. For you real wonks out there, or those of you with questions on the finer points, you can read the text of specific proposed changes for yourself as published in The News Tribune, and more on the process and amendments at cityoftacoma.org/charterreview.

For everyone, your Voters' Pamphlet is worth a read - it's got the basic information, and seriously, the statements for and against ballot items make for informative, and often entertaining reading... even if you're not a civics geek like we are...

But you all geek out on that kind of stuff too... right?

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The solution is to STOP electing Council members who are beholding to an insider led cabal.  We need elected representatives who say to the City Manager YOU are going to start listening to and responding to the people who are paying your salary or you are FIRED.  No severance pay, no termination package - just pack up your crap and leave and take your staff with you.

The City Council should make this one statement and make sure it comes through loud and clear:  YOU as City Manager have polled the residents AND they have told you what THEIR priorities are AND you will implement those priorities and we are here to make sure that YOU are paying attention to the people who are paying the bills.  Period.  We are not here to do YOUR job for you and it is up to you to listen to the people who are paying the bills around here. 

YOU WILL continue to poll residents AND in that poll the residents will be given the opportunity to grade your performance based upon how well you have done in implementing THEIR priorities.  It will NOT be a popularity contest and it will not grade you on a damnable thing except YOUR ability to listen to residents and implement strategies to address what their prioritized list of concerns are. 

We residents are polled and polled and polled again in an effort to validate the direction YOUR Administration wants to go and WITHOUT FAIL each and every time the polling is done the outcome is the same.  Residents want the focus to be on providing basic services and they want our existing infrastructure restored, preserved and maintained BEFORE you do spend a dime on any other project or program AND that includes using existing revenue streams to leverage private, State and federal grant monies to fund grandiose schemes that never live up to the prognostications YOUR band of insiders lay out as validation for stripping the budgets of basic services (such as weekly garbage collection) and raiding the budgets of each and every City maintenance shop to fund.

Government in Tacoma is well funded, government in Tacoma has the latitude to respond to residents IF government were in a mood to respond to residents priorities instead of their friends (i.e. campaign contributors), family and long time business associates priorities. 

Each time I see in The News Buffoon that The City of Tacoma has “found” funding for this, that and the other thing that is at or near the bottom of the list on resident’s list of priorities, I am impressed that the powers that be couldn’t give a tinkers damn about what the residents think.  Residents have been polled by Tacoma government and EACH time they are polled the things that government makes a priority shrink to insignificant on resident’s prioritized list.  This money was not “found,” it was not lost to begin with, it was more likely than not in the budget for basic services and maintenance and preservation.  For the City Manager to make these statements is akin to saying some jackass whose priorities are beer, pot, cigarettes and gambling “found” the money to go out on Friday night.  He/she didn’t “find” anything, he made beer, pot, cigarettes and gambling HIS priority because that is what matters first to him.  He took the money from the family budget and made his family obligations subsidiary to his desire to spend time with his first four loves. 

October 20, 2014 at 8:49 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Great comments on the charter amendments btw.

October 20, 2014 at 9:16 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jim C

I think it’s interesting that one of the proposed changes would eliminate the requirement of the publication of the document where we, the citizens, are supposed to be informed of the details of such changes offline. I do read the pamphlets when they come out, BTW. Although it *was* the County that issued the pamphlet outlining the Charter Amendments, right?

I think the editorial piece on this in Sunday’s paper was pretty clear and concise. It’s unsurprising that a review process governed by an unserious city council would, outside of the no-brainers on language, focus exclusively on extending powers to that same council. Hopefully this is enough to dislodge a few of these people when they are up for re-election.

October 20, 2014 at 11:44 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I read the News Tribune viewpoint by Seago and Seinfeld, and found it helpful in defining the issues. Their conclusion is that the current council-manager form of government, if abandoned, would lead to a submersion of quality service for citizens.

Regarding Proposal 8, is it possible that the council sees a need to extend term limits because history shows that Tacoma’s individual council members rarely represent the form of a vigorous independent character who has the experience of a technician, an artist, and a businessman combined?

Maybe this time, this current council is right about the need for an intellectual change to bridge the gap between reality and idealism. Tacoma sometimes does get council members who only meet the demands of their role halfway. But, as Seago and Seinfeld pointed out, it’s the council’s methods and process for change that is questionable—-a superficial and technically amateurish process can’t bring Tacoma a real advance.

October 20, 2014 at 11:26 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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No doubt the charter review process seemed a bit tainted, but as stand alone provisions to the City Charter I think the term limit extension makes sense.  The Mayor and the Council are in fact two different positions, but subject to a provision that limits a good Councilperson running for Mayor as far as term limits are concerned.  It is hard to have a good advocate/face for the city under these rules.  Besides The New TaKKKhoman is against all 12, couldn’t the choice be any more clearer?

October 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Suggest you read the Letter to the Editor in The Weekly regarding that opinion piece.  Defines what the Manager-Council form of government really is….undemocratic!

October 30, 2014 at 7:03 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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6. Council Confirmation of the Director of Utilities:  Any TPU CEO is ultimately incentivized to grow the utilities department in number of customers.  That is, if they only service Tacoma proper, that cuts out the current outlying towns and cities being serviced by TPU thus cutting the overall power usage and customer base.  That’s why the CEO makes over $300k a year; they’ve added to their operations and now it takes that salary to get someone to run it.  However, Tacoma CAN generate enough power from it’s investments in dams (etc.) to service Tacoma proper at a lot lower rate than current.  What is happening is that TPU now serves outside cities and therefore needs to buy more power at a much higher rate from outlying utilities like BPA.  Because nobody wants to be “unfair” with utility rates, they cost blend the low cost of Tacoma generated power with the power they buy from external sources and charge everyone the same prices.  Tacoma gets screwed because without a CEO of TPU answering to SOMEONE outside of TPU, they continue to try and grow and raise salaries within.  That’s why you don’t see undergrounding of utilities in Tacoma.  That’s why you don’t see super low costs for your utilities (that you should see because you’re a Tacoman and already invested in that infrastructure), and that is why that low cost can’t be leveraged to attract businesses to town.

At least, this is how it was explained to me.

October 20, 2014 at 1:47 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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The paranoid right and the paranoid left are united in their opposition to the charter changes.  My read is that they’re all either innocuous or provide agencies like TPU with a little more accountability.

October 21, 2014 at 7:26 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Elizabeth Burris

Already voted, but in my opinion, if the council didn’t want the provision of changing the charter to a “Strong mayor” system then why would I vote to micromanage the hiring of the City Manager?

Anyone who votes all ” no’s or all yes” votes on the charter issues is a fool, or totally uneducated on the issues.

November 4, 2014 at 11:29 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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