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Wanted: Strong Tacoma city manager, strong council

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on July 13, 2011 at 7:48 pm with No Comments »
July 13, 2011 5:05 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Six years is a pretty good run for city managers, public officials who live in the cross hairs and tend to accumulate criticism until their city councils fire them.

But Tacoma’s Eric Anderson probably would still be going strong had he not sped his own departure, mostly through sins of omission. The Tacoma City Council – which voted Tuesday not to renew his contract – now has a chance to find a new executive and redeem its own mistakes in dealing with Anderson.

As the council majority concluded Tuesday, he was the right person to run the city 2005 but has ceased to be the chief executive Tacoma needs.

Anderson’s successes are undeniable.

A highly competent administrator, he helped stabilized a city government still shaken by the David Brame scandal.

Initially, he did much to restore fiscal reality to a city on a ruinous spending trajectory. His anti-crime initiatives made streets safer; his community-based partnerships of volunteers, police and code-enforcers helped clean up blighted neighborhoods.

But his last few years have been increasingly disappointing.

He’s been less than engaged with Tacoma’s civic and business leadership; the council rightly faulted his limited strategies for job-creation and economic development. Ray Corpuz, who was forced out as manager after the Brame catastrophe, demonstrated how much impact an outward-looking administrator can have on the city as a whole.

For all his early fiscal hawkishness, Anderson wound up presiding over a massive increase in city salaries during a severe recession, an increase driven by pre-recession assumptions. City pay escalated much more rapidly than inflation – as libraries were closed and neighborhood streets continued to decay.

Many have complained of Anderson’s lack of candor. The City Council has been repeatedly startled by belated discoveries of things he knew – or should have known – and failed to share, including an $821,000 overrun on Cheney Stadium that recently showed up on a meeting agenda weeks after he knew about it.

A cardinal rule in any organization is to keep your boss in the loop. The problem in Tacoma was that the council often seemed confused about who the boss was.

Whatever else he may be, Anderson is a forceful man. That can be good for a city – if its elected council is equally forceful in demanding accountability from him. The Tacoma council wasn’t up to the job.

The impression is of a strong executive running increasingly rampant as his so-called supervisors watched and did little. The first instance of furtiveness should have been the last.

Some council members might be tempted to look for a new city manager who is radically unlike Anderson – a compliant, polite glad-hander. That would be a mistake, too.

Anderson had great strengths. The city would be best served by a successor who possesses comparable strengths, plus more forthrightness with the public and engagement with the world outside city hall. Tacoma also needs a council capable of governing a strong city manager.

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