Joint study re-examines Tacoma's form of government

The scrutiny of Tacoma’s form of government continues, as the findings of a joint study by the City Club of Tacoma and the Municipal League of Tacoma-Pierce County were presented before the City Council during Tuesday’s study session.

Elvin Vandeberg, a member of City Club’s Board of Directors, was on hand to provide details of the the report, “Revisiting Tacoma’s Government: A second look at its council-manager system.”

In 1997, City Club conducted a similar report, “Tacoma’s Government, Should It be Changed? Comparing the city council-manager form with a “strong mayor” plan.

This year’s report was written and edited by Vandeberg and Ben Gilbert, the study co-chairs.

Fourteen members of City Club and the Municipal League conducted interviews with 27 civic and political leaders, including present and former Tacoma mayors, council members and city managers, as well as the heads and representatives of various city departments. Interviewees were not quoted by name in the report.

Also as part of the report, members of the joint study group examined comparable municipal government systems in cities throughout Washington and California.

“This study is not about whether the city’s form of government should be changed,” Vandeberg said. “The focus came to be how could the present form of government be improved.”

Tacoma’s council-manager form of government has come under fire in the wake of the April 26 fatal shooting of Crystal Brame by her husband, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who subsequently killed himself (see related story at bottom).

Fallout from that has included the termination of City Manager Ray Corpuz – who hired Brame – and a stalled petition to change Tacoma’s form of government by getting rid of the city manager’s job and replacing it with a strong mayor to run city business.

“This is not intended to be a critique of any member of the council, past or present,” Vandeberg assured.

The primary conclusion of the report, said Vandeberg, was this: “The quality of the people elected and appointed is more important than the form of government.”

Some of the study’s specific conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

– The mayor and council must assure public accountability. The city’s elected mayor and council members must reclaim their authority to lead the city government.

– Council meetings, hearings and public forums should provide for open discussion of public issues and involve the public in the formulation of city policies and programs.

The report states after the Brame murder-suicide, Corpuz and supporting council members met informally, with no more than four council members attending, so as to avoid state “open meetings” laws.

“The practice of holding private meetings between the city manager and selected council members to make behind-the-scenes council decisions should be abandoned,” Vandeberg said.

– The mayor and council should select as city manager, an individual who is experienced, as well as professionally educated and trained. The city manager should be hired under a contract that allows for termination by the council at any time with appropriate severance pay.

– The city charter should be amended to require the City Council to annually evaluate the city manager and formally consider retention of the city manager every two years. Evaluation and retention actions should be discussed and decided at open meetings of the council.

“For a period of about 10 years, the City Council didn’t give a formal evaluation of the city manager,” Vandeberg observed.

He described that as unfair to the city manger, adding this lack of a performance review wouldn’t be tolerated in the private sector and shouldn’t be tolerated in the public sector.

– A formal process to establish a commission to review the city’s charter should be instituted. The commission should be asked to review the relationship between the mayor the council and the city administration.

Other recommendations include the appointment of two assistants to the mayor and council, a more citizen-friendly budget explanation, a review of the city’s employee compensation system and placing the police and fire departments in a single public safety department.

Though some of what the report stated was no doubt difficult to listen to, City Council members overall were pleased with the report.

“I find this really, really helpful,” said Councilman Mike Lonergan, noting the information presented provides a framework from which to proceed.

Councilman Doug Miller agreed, calling the report “comprehensive and thorough.”

“We’re having this discussion, but what happens after this discussion?” asked Deputy Mayor Bil Moss.

She suggested the City Council make an exhaustive review of the entire city charter over a period of several years.

The City Council voted Tuesday night to deny the $75 million claim filed against the City of Tacoma by the Judson family – the parents of Crystal Brame – and approved a motion to discuss early resolution with the Judsons and their attorneys.

“We do not believe the City of Tacoma is legally responsible for the death of Crystal Brame,” said Tim Gosselin, Jill Stone and Rob Novasky of Burgess Fitzer, P.S., the firm representing the city on the Judson family lawsuit.

The council, through the motion passed Tuesday night, expressed compassion for Haley, 8, and David Brame, Jr., 5.

“The City Council wants to avoid lengthy litigation,” Mayor Bill Baarsma said. “It makes much more sense for us to provide for the two young children, who have experienced a tremendous amount of tragedy, rather than spend money on a trial that would disrupt their lives even more.”

The City Council did not specify a settlement amount.

“That would be premature at this point,” said attorney Tim Gosselin. “We will notify the Judson family attorneys of the council’s decision tonight and are hopeful that they are willing to discuss settlement options.”

The Judson family filed the claim against the city June 9. The filing procedure requires a 60-day hiatus between the filing of a claim for damages and the filing of a lawsuit, during which a claim is evaluated. The end of the hiatus is Aug. 8.