Takhoman Publisher John Hathaway joins Karen Seinfeld, former Pierce
Superior Court judge and retired state Court of Appeals judge, David
2008 retired News Tribune editorial page editor, four former Tacoma
seven former City Council members and other civic leaders in opposing
proposed changes to the Tacoma City Charter.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That old truism is all voters
need to know to understand why
all 12 proposed Tacoma City Charter amendments on the Nov. 4 ballots
It really is that simple. The
worst of the amendments would
partially dismantle the city’s 62-year-old council-manager form of
and undermine the crucial independence of Tacoma Public Utilities – all
evidence of any real need for change.
Let’s run through a checklist:
Does Tacoma have clean city
government, free of political
patronage and corruption? Check.
Are elected politicians on the
council prevented from
meddling directly in the operations of city departments like police,
fire and public
Does city-owned Tacoma Public
Utilities provide dependable
power and water at rates among the lowest in the region? Check.
Can the City Council fire a city
manager for poor
Would charter changes mean more
money for fixing potholed
city streets, the No. 1 citizen complaint these days? Nope.
What’s afoot here? Some City
Council members, particularly
the strong-mayor advocates, want to tilt the charter’s careful balance
toward the council. Two amendments in particular would undercut the
authority of the city manager and undermine the historic partial
Tacoma Public Utilities.
The whole point of a
council-manager approach is to
professionalize the management of city government. The council hires a
manager, sets policy and direction, then keeps out of the way. Some
the city manager is too powerful. We think putting the city manager’s
the line is pretty good accountability. Remember city managers Ray
Eric Andersen? Fired.
Space doesn’t permit us to
address all of the charter
proposals. But let’s consider the most troublesome:
• Proposal No. 5 would
require council confirmation of
city department heads. If the city manager can’t independently choose
management team, he’s not really in charge. This negates the purpose of
a council-manager form of government.
• Proposal No. 6 would
require council confirmation of
the TPU director’s appointment and require reconfirmation every two
The charter gives the Utility
Board – whose members are
appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council – the sole
hire and fire the director. This separation of powers is designed to
political influence out of utility operations. Yet the council retains
considerable authority by having final approval of the TPU budget and
Keeping the chief utility
executive on such a short political
leash with two masters is a prescription for organizational disaster.
amendment passes, look for more attempts by the council to shift some
general government to utility ratepayers – a maneuver the council has
unsuccessfully tried at least twice in recent years.
• Proposal No. 8 would
change the current term limits
for the council in such a way that a two-term council member could be
mayor and serve a total of 18 years altogether. That’s way too long in
for a non-executive mayor who is supposed to be “first among equals” on
council rather than a career politician.
• Proposal No. 9, which
would create a council-appointed
salary commission to recommend council pay raises, is unwarranted. Our
part-time council members already receive $42,411 a year plus medical,
vision and pension benefits. Their salaries automatically increase 2.75
a year. Serving on the City Council is not supposed to be a way to make
The remaining amendments are
mostly harmless. But this year’s
charter review process was so botched and tainted by council influence
voters would do well to reject all of them. There’s a responsible and
legitimate way to debate major changes in city government. That’s not
happened this time.
Karen Seinfeld is a former Pierce
County Superior Court judge
and retired state Court of Appeals judge. David Seago retired in 2008
editorial page editor for The News Tribune. This article was submitted
behalf of a campaign group, Forward Tacoma,that includes four former
mayors, seven former City Council members and other civic leaders.