by William Stimson
Like Spokane, Tacoma will decide this fall whether it should be operated by a city manager or a mayor.
The debate on the other side of the state is instructive as Spokane weighs its own future because the two cities have so much in common. They are almost exactly the same size and have similar demographics. Both spent a half century in the city manager form of municipal government before a crisis in their civic affairs provoked a call for change. Spokane changed two years ago but is now considering returning to its old government at the very moment Tacoma is tempted to follow Spokane into strong mayor politics.
The twin cities of Washington are headed in opposite directions, but their concerns are mirror images of each other. Spokane has to decide in September if more responsiveness in government is worth the more intense political atmosphere. Tacoma citizens will decide on the November ballot if a & quot;non-political & quot; system has insulated government officials too much from popular sentiment.
So what's going on in Tacoma?
Until last spring, Tacoma's debate had been low-key and hypothetical. That changed on April 26, when Tacoma's police chief, David Brame, used his service pistol to shoot to death his wife Crystal and then himself.
The shock of that event has caused Tacoma citizens to focus on their local government as they seldom have before. When the city's chief law-enforcer turned out to be a psychologically unbalanced murderer, many citizens figured there must have been an error in judgment somewhere.
Citizen anger increased when they learned that City Manager Ray Corpuz retained Chief Brame despite the fact that Brame's wife had complained to other police officers that Brame beat her, and despite the fact that another woman had accused Brame of rape. Who was responsible for appointing Brame to such an important post?
Under the city manager system, the choice of a police chief is solely the decision of the non-elected city manager. But the city council did not place any blame on their appointed manager. In fact, the city council's first instinct was to allow Corpuz himself to direct the investigation. A public outcry prevented that. When the council voted to keep Corpuz on the job after all, citizens booed from the council chambers. The council eventually dismissed Corpuz, but only very reluctantly. City Councilwoman Sharon McGavick voted to keep Corpuz on and called his removal "a political coup. This is an overthrow of the city manager."
This reluctance to take the prescribed step of replacing the city manager when things go wrong was interpreted by many citizens as a sign that the system did not work as it was supposed to. In theory, since the city manager makes important decisions without being elected, replacement for substandard performance is normal and expected. Citizens' groups charged that an old-boy network in city hall was more interested in protecting its own than fixing what was wrong.
Tacoma's city manger system has its defenders. Two civic groups, the City Club of Tacoma and the Municipal League of Tacoma-Pierce County, launched a study of Tacoma's government a year ago and had completed the research at the time of the Brame incident. The final report was issued earlier this month. It concludes that "most civic leaders consulted preferred to make necessary adjustments within the present governmental framework."
Nearly all of the people interviewed as resources for the report were present or past members of the city manager system, including former mayors, city managers, council members, city worker union members and the like. It is not surprising that they supported keeping the system under which they rose to prominence.
What is surprising is that, although they favored retaining the city manager system, insiders were extremely critical of it, at least as it operates in Tacoma. The 20-page report, entitled "Revisiting Tacoma's Government: A Second Look At Its Council-Manager System," concluded that "Power has tended to drift from Tacoma's elected officials to the city manager, with the result that the mayor and city council often function as reviewers rather than initiators.... Many of those interviewed stressed the need to make the appointed city manager more accountable to they city's elected officials, the mayor and the council, and to the public at large."
The theme of the report is that the supposedly non-political city manager is really Tacoma's chief political figure. The report quoted a former member of the city council: "We changed [from commissioner government] because of a perceived need to rid government of the politics and cronyism of the other systems, but in reality, we now have politics and cronyism, but it is on the city manager level."
According to the report, the city manager creates most initiatives in city hall and then lobbies them through the council in private meetings. "No more than four council members attended any one of the private conferences with Corpuz," the report said, "thus evading state 'open meetings' law requiring meetings of public bodies to be open to the press and public." Other times the council "formed themselves into 'committee of the whole'" two hours before the council meeting to discuss issues. "Although the public has the right to attend these meetings, they are not widely known and few do attend," the report said. Issues thus debated and decided in private then received "perfunctory council adoption at its regular open meetings."
"The process of getting issues resolved privately in advance of public council meetings appears to stifle debate," the report concluded.
The council takes direction from the city manager because members do not have the time or staff to monitor government.
Even the basic function of representing the views of those who elected them can be difficult for a council that does not have even a single staff member of its own. Council members tend to be overwhelmed by demands made upon them. The report quoted a former mayor: "The situation lends itself to council persons not being motivated to respond to citizens' complaints."
The report pointed out that the original justification for an appointed chief executive, the expertise of a professionally trained manager, has been forfeited. "In recent years, Tacoma's city council has hired knowledgeable political insiders for the position of city manager, but they have lacked the professional graduate education and training" that is assumed to be a city manager government's main credential.
A bit ironically, the report on city manager form found that recent attacks on the system are a positive sign: "The robust open public discussion of the direction and management of the city government growing out of the Brame murder-suicide is illustrative of the type of discussion that too often is missing from official public deliberations of important municipal decisions in Tacoma."
The report notes that it is the second such study of Tacoma government in recent years. A report issued by the same group in 1997 "contained recommendations for tightening the system that were not carried out."
Tacoma citizens will vote on the change on Nov. 4.
Publication date: 07/24/03