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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 Elections - The Charter currently contains outdated language that conflicts with State law and City practices related to elections.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currently includes gender-specific language, as well as obsolete references to the position of "Personnel Officer," and outdated provisions for the succession of government.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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