Does Tacoma really have “the best city manager in the world”?

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

Under a recently renewed employment agreement with the city, Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli’s annual salary was raised from $287,872 to $309,556, putting her in the company of highest paid public officials in the state – but not so far different from other city managers, here in Washington and in other states.

Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes is paid $317,271 after receiving a $24,180 raise last year. (Just that raise in 2022 was an extra $2,000-plus a month – about half of the median family income in Vancouver).

Mayor vs city manager

For a variety of reasons, city managers have a high salary. Mayors are elected – and paid far less than city managers. In essence, the mayor is a working member of the city council.

Many cities with highly paid city managers have what is called a “weak mayor” system where the city manager does the work of city managing while the mayor is more of a figurehead who reigns over civic events and festivities and represents their city across the country and around the world. The city manager, for better or worse, tends to work in the background, usually far from the public eye.

Strong mayor/weak mayor

A “strong mayor” system is where the elected mayor administrates and is accountable to voters. City managers, on the other hand, are appointed and are accountable, not to voters, but to those who appointed them.

In the past, Tacoma has had a “strong mayor” system, and, if you know anything about Tacoma’s history (or most cities, for that matter) the “strong mayor” system has some major vulnerabilities. (We did an article on mayors and city government in Tacoma a few years ago.)

A “weak mayor”, strong city manager system is, in theory at least, a bulwark against city government corruption. How effective the “weak mayor”, strong city manager system is in preventing corruption is still an open question.

Several years ago, the small city of Bell, California dominated the headlines for their city council who, for decades, took kick-backs, gave themselves bonuses and congratulated themselves for their civic involvement (you can see a time line of city council corruption, California-style here).

The vast majority of California cities have “weak mayor”, strong city manager systems. East Coast cities tend to have “strong” mayors.

To put it mildly, no system is immune from corruption.

An un-elected, largely unaccountable, city manager (or in some cases, city council) whether in Chicago, Everett or Bell, California or almost anywhere else, seems uniquely vulnerable to isolation, nepotism and shady dealings of all kinds.

And if you know anything about toddlers or teenagers (or politicians) you know that “protesting too much” is a near-automatic reaction of denial.

At the meeting where Tacoma’s city manager’s contract was renewed, one council member described her as “the best city manager in this country”. Our mayor, never one to be noted for her under-statements, called her “the best city manager in the world.”

In her performance review from the city council, she received an average rating of 4, or “exceeds expectations,” on a scale of 1-5. When it comes to political representatives at all levels, if anything, we nationally, and perhaps even more, on a local basis, suffer from a near-terminal case of low expectations. “Exceeding expectations” seems like a low bar.

As every local history buff knows, we in Tacoma have a long history of mayors and city managers getting fired or even jailed for their actions while in office.

You get what you pay for?

Tacoma, is, of course not alone, in the pay scale of city managers. For whatever reason, city managers get paid a lot and Tacoma’s base pay is not out of line.

Some recent examples of current base pay (not including the bonuses): T.C. Broadnax (former Tacoma City manager), Dallas, $423,000; Howard Chan, Sacamento, $400,000 plus; Mike Ortega, Tucson, $300,000; Ed Zuerder, Phoenix, $315,000; Ray Corpuz (dismissed Tacoma City Manager), Salinas, California $282,808 (as of 2020, currently retired). This payment does not include bonus or extra retirement contributions – or standard retirement, medical, car allowance and a whole menu of additional benefits.

Tacoma’s city manager is not, however, the highest paid city employee – that would be Tacoma’s second city manager, the Utility Director.

I often wonder what any city employee would do to earn well over $1,000 a day (not every day WORKED, but literally every day of the year – and then some). In barely more than a month Tacoma’s city manager makes more than the median Tacoma household in a year. And about 12.5% of Tacoma residents are below the official poverty line.

Tacoma’s city manager is currently paid more money annually than Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Gov. Jay Inslee. Dammeier’s yearly income currently stands at $214,540.27. Inslee’s current annual salary is $190,632 and will go up to $198,257 effective July 1 this year. Pauli’s salary is more than any elected official in the Executive Branch of state government: Lieutenant Governor, $124,127; Secretary of State, $145,714; Treasurer, $162,555; Attorney General, $187,543; Auditor, $145,714; Superintendent of Public Instruction, $161,905; Insurance Commissioner, $145,714; and Commissioner of Public Lands, $161,905.


I also have to add, that as a college level English/writing instructor I would continually urge my students to avoid vague generalities like “best” as a descriptor. The word “best” is lazy, subjective and, is, in most cases, an uninformed, highly biased opinion. Ever have a conversation about the “best” car, breakfast or NFL team? The “best” NFL team, for example, would have a record of results (points or wins) that would prove its case.

When it comes to cities, the criteria is, or at least should be, relatively measurable and objective. Individual safety and civic reputation might be guidelines, but credit rating, debt, education scores, health scores, crime rates, economy and infrastructure are also larger, big-picture factors.

Any city’s services provided or available against the total budget per capita spent on them can be measured. Cities with a high budget and low quality of life are toward the bottom of the list, and that’s where, to no one’s surprise, Tacoma falls.

Life in any community ultimately comes down to how each individual feels treated and has access to essential services. How safe, secure and clean are most neighborhoods? Are any parts of the city immune from crime, graffiti, potholes and trash? Does every school-age child have access to desirable schools? Are school lunches appealing and nutritious? Do those in need have access to essential services? Are our parks adequately funded and maintained?

Is there any measurable criteria that would lead anyone to believe that Tacoma is one of the best managed cities in the country?

We might have “the best city manager in the world” but do we have the best managed city?

WalletHub did a study of the best managed cities in the USA, and, out of 150 cities, as most of us might have guessed, Tacoma is near the bottom (139 out of 150). At least we are better than Detroit, Flint and Oakland…