City Council debates charter changes

KRIS SHERMAN; The Tacoma News Tribune


Tacoma, WA - Whether Tacoma should change its form of government and exactly how to put that question before voters in the fall - if at all - is likely to provoke the most lively discussion Monday during a special City Council meeting called to consider proposed amendments to the City Charter.

A majority of council members are willing to put the lingering issue on the November ballot and let the voters decide whether they want the city to be run by an elected strong mayor or an appointed city manager.

In the meantime, the grass-roots group Time For A Change is increasing the volume of its effort to convince Tacoma residents the city should be run by an elected mayor.

A 4-by-8-foot plywood sign bearing the message "Time For A Change: Tacoma Needs Accountable Elected Leaders" went up a few days ago on North 30th Street, just up the hill from Job Carr's Cabin. The lettering is red, white and blue with the word "accountable" in black, Time For A Change spokesman Rick Cvitanich said.

Two smaller signs appear in front of Ex-Press Printing in the 1500 block of Tacoma Avenue South, Cvitanich said.

"We want people to start visually seeing that we're out there and that we're for real," he added.

Grass-roots groups have been trying for two years to put the strong mayor issue on the ballot. In 2002, the effort failed for lack of signatures.

The movement grew in popularity last year after the David Brame shootings rocked City Hall and sparked the council's firing of then-City Manager Ray Corpuz. But the issue didn't make the ballot. Time For A Change gathered some 12,500 signatures, but because of a printing error, inadvertently circulated two petitions.

Neither one had the 7,029-signature total needed to put the question to voters.

This year, the group proposes three major changes to the city's charter: Abolish the city manager form of government in favor of an elected mayor who would run the city and appoint most department heads; shrink the council from nine to seven members; and elect the city attorney.

But state law says charter amendments proposed by initiative may appear on the ballot only in "regular" municipal elections, assistant city attorney Steve Victor said.

The charter amendment vote the council would call for this fall is a special municipal election, so the only way Time For A Change can get its proposals before voters in 2004 is to convince council members to put them there, Victor said.

That's not as easy as making a simple request. Among the questions council members will likely discuss Monday evening:

•Should the council put the initiative on the ballot exactly as Time for A Change has proposed it?

•Should the council put the strong mayor question on the ballot but delete or change the other issues in the initiative?

•And if council members want Time for A Change to prove voters want the strong mayor issue on the ballot this year, how many signatures of registered voters will it take to put it there?

Council members hold differing views over how the issue might get on the ballot.

"I think in the context of the democracy, if citizens sign an initiative or a petition, it appears to me that citizen has the right to have that initiative (on the ballot) exactly as he or she signed it." Councilman Bill Evans said.

But he acknowledged the issue is complex and said he has philosophical disputes with the way the initiative is written and its call for an elected city attorney.

"Are we going to have a strong mayor and a weak council?" Evans asked.

If the issue goes on this year's ballot, it should "be unedited and unimproved" exactly as submitted by the people, Councilman Tom Stenger said.

Mayor Bill Baarsma and Councilman Mike Lonergan both have said they're willing to put the long-simmering issue - which has held up the search for a new city manager - before voters, but each suggests it might be boiled down to its essence.

Councilman Spiro Manthou said he, too, thinks it belongs on the ballot this year, but he's not sure what form it should take.

Councilwoman Julie Anderson said she's not "interested in monkeying around with it or making it something I thought it should be." But she suggested perhaps the council and the Time For A Change group could negotiate a friendly amendment.

Then there's the complex issue of signatures.

Does the council require the 7,029 signatures the group needed last year, a figure based on the state-mandated 15 percent of the Tacomans who voted in the 2002 election?

Do council members use the 2003 election as a yardstick? That would lower the number to 5,078, according to Cvitanich. Or do council members pick some other number?

Since only the council can put the strong mayor question on the ballot this year, it gets to choose the form and decide how it gets there, attorney Victor said.

On Monday night he'll give them this legal advice: "It's up to you."

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659

How to get involved

• The Tacoma City Council will meet in special session at 4:30 p.m. Monday to discuss proposed amendments to the city's 51-year-old charter and whether to put them before voters in November. The council, which will consider a range of amendments proposed by a 15-member citizens Charter Review Committee as well as by council members, will meet in Room 16 of the Tacoma Municipal Building North, 733 Market St. For a copy of the agenda, go online to www.cityoftacoma. org/default.asp?main=/54council/ default.asp.



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