Who would want to be mayor of Tacoma?

Java Jive poster Photo by Morf Morford

Java Jive poster
Photo by Morf Morford

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

You may have noticed the proliferation of campaign signs all over town for a variety of political offices.

As usual, Tacoma has more than its share of dedicated, experienced and committed candidates.

I’ve never run for office, or even seriously considered it. Like most typical citizens, I don’t have the fullest understanding of what many of the offices entail or what their areas of responsibility might be. Who among us would pass a test on the scope and local influence of the assessor or auditor’s office, for example? How many of us have the slightest idea what the daily work of a port commissioner might be?

My limited knowledge tells me that each office has its own area of responsibility, and I assume that each candidate has the experience, if not calling, to perform the duties of their desired office.

For most cities, the mayor is the final authority, the chief manager and decision-maker.*

Tacoma, like a few other cities in Washington (Yakima, Bellevue and Vancouver and a few others) has a non-elected, hired city manager. In Tacoma, the city manager is hired by the city council. In other words, the city manager is a city employee not elected by local voters. The city manager is literally the manager of the city.

So what does the mayor actually do? And why would anyone want to do it?

Among other things, the mayor is a working member of the city council. The mayor is also a figurehead who represents the city as he or she makes official proclamations or signs declarations and civic agreements between municipalities.

Usually the mayor and city council in a city with a city manager gets paid less than one without – but not in Tacoma.

As of 2015, Tacoma’s mayor was paid $96,117 (Bellevue’s mayor got $23,400, Vancouver $27,600) each Tacoma City Council member received $48,069 (Bellevue’s city council got $19, 800 each while Vancouver council members got $21,600). Our city manager earns about $235,000 annually – approximately $50,000 more than the mayor of Seattle.

The city manager attends meetings, establishes contracts, and to a large degree, sets policy. The city manager has no set term and may hold office across the terms of multiple mayors – or may be dismissed (with the approval of the city council) at any time.

Cities without a city manager have what is called a “strong mayor” – the mayor holds all civil authority – large and small. For a variety of reasons (primarily corruption and abuse of power) Tacoma has moved away from the strong mayor system and toward the more stable city manager model.

Neither system is perfect, and each one has its distinct complications and compromises.

We have three candidates for mayor this election cycle – each one with a long history and set of experiences in Tacoma.

One has been on the city council for several years; one has been a local architect who has been involved with many of the defining design features of Tacoma, while the third was Assistant Attorney General and Executive Director of the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.

Each one has an intimate knowledge of who and what Tacoma has been, is and is becoming. Each one holds a vision of Tacoma yet to be seen.

We, the voters of Tacoma, will decide which of these competing voices we will pursue, first in the primary on August 1st and then the general election in November.

Our mayor, even though not a “strong mayor,” sets the tone and defines the agenda, and perhaps most important, represents our city across the country and around the world. But why would anyone actually want to be mayor?

I would guess that the expense, the headaches and heartburn – and frayed relationships far outweigh any positive feedback. It seems to me that there is no logical reason why anyone would want to be mayor.

Maybe it is like falling in love – or having children. On a purely logical basis, many of us would not do either of these things – and few of us do these things because we want to – we just can’t NOT do them. We know that our life would be empty if we didn’t do them.

Perhaps people run for mayor of Tacoma because they have something like a love for this place that can’t decide if it is a city or a small town, a thug heaven or a place that welcomes baby strollers and dog parks, the best place for car thefts or romantic getaways.

For example I’m convinced that Tacoma has the best parks and the worst potholes in the Pacific Northwest. Most of us are proud, puzzled and usually a bit embarrassed when we feel obligated to admit that we are from Tacoma.

But even with all that, voluntarily or not, and for a short time or for a long time, Tacoma is home, and we need the kind of mayor who does the normal mayor things, but more than that, we need a mayor who loves us the way we are, and somehow, in ways we may never understand or appreciate, leads us to a place and identity we never knew we had in us.

We probably don’t deserve such a mayor – and we probably don’t even want one like that, but these are crazy times and our city has many challenges we have never seen before.

Yes, we need a steady hand, but more than that, we need a mayor to remind us, even when we don’t want to hear it, that we are more and better than this, and we will become even better and our new mayor, whoever they may be, doesn’t only represent us – in an odd way, he or she is us.

May the best candidate win!

pierce-county-Voter-WEB-big-mtn2017_Artboard-big-mtn-w-trail-10* Here are the duties and responsibilities of Tacoma’s mayor from the City Charter, Section 2.4:

- The Mayor shall become a member and presiding officer of the City Council with the right to speak and vote as any other Council Member. 

- The Mayor shall be the official head of the City government for purposes of ceremony and military law and upon declaration of an emergency or disaster which constitutes an event or set of circumstances which demands immediate action to preserve public health, protect life, protect public property, or which reaches such a dimension or degree of destructiveness that exceeds the resources of the City of Tacoma to respond to the situation.

- The Mayor shall authenticate by signature such instruments as may be required by law, ordinance, or this charter. 

- The Mayor shall have such appointive and other powers, duties, and authority as may be conferred by law, ordinance, or this charter; provided, however, that all appointments where not in conflict with state law shall be made by majority vote of the Council Members.