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Bauer reflects on city’s turmoil, future

Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer reflects on her eight months working for the island community. - Courtesy Photo
Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer reflects on her eight months working for the island community.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Now in her eighth month on the job, Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer is ready for more time out of the office.

Bauer has spent much of her tenure thus far cooped up after starting her job in May, mid-year through a new form of government and just a couple months before a tumultuous budget would create devastating cuts in the community.

Now that much of the crisis control has subsided, the Seattle resident and veteran City of Seattle administrator, is ready for more face time with the community.

Bauer started her career at the City of Seattle in 1979 and climbed her way up the ladder, eventually earning a law degree before becoming Seattle’s director of the Fleets and Facilities Department in 2004. When Bauer first started she said she had friends on the island, and had done her homework on the community and was ready to hit the ground running.

Bauer began at the end of May 2010, and as stipulated in her contract, a semi-annual review was to take place in January. It’s now near mid-March and her review was placed on the back burner while the council dealt with other issues in a packed agenda for 2011. Councilors have disagreed as to how extensively to perform the two-month delayed review, considering that the one-year anniversary of her start date is near.

A council subcommittee has been formed to generate a review, which will occur in executive session by the end of the month, and include opinions from both councilors and department heads.

Now that she has some breathing room, Bauer provided her take on her experience thus far as the island’s city manager.

Q. The mid-year review, as promised in your contract, has already been delayed by two months. Will the delay impinge on your ability to make any changes before your contract comes up for renegotiation at the end of May?

A. I recognize people want a sense of permanence, that the title of “interim” leaves some people waiting to see what will happen with leadership.  I’m excited about the incredible team at COBI – the staff here are among the most competent and hardworking I’ve had the pleasure of working with in more than 30 years in local government.

The council seems to be accomplishing many of their goals and rebuilding trust with the organization. I’m not concerned about the delay in my review; it has been a time of such significant transition.

The role of the review is to take stock of the relationship and correct course as necessary. I work closely enough with council members that I have regular opportunities to hear their views on our/my successes and challenges.

I’m very invested in the staff, the community, and the work - in part because of the shared difficult times in all honesty - and would like to help into the future.

Q. How difficult was it come to the city midyear through a new form of government, and a budget crisis?

A. One of the things I have discovered (by mistake!) is that I am pretty good at what I call “terrible opportunities.”

No one wishes for difficult problems or times, but when they happen, I find that I am able to help people plan a path out.

When I started with the city, there were issues with leadership stability, and trust was low.  The council had been revising budgets almost non-stop to try to get a handle on finances.  There was no city attorney, no deputy, and soon no finance director, yet a budget was due in a matter of weeks.

A certain amount of sweat, and the faith of the council and staff, got us through that time.  There were many painful and difficult conversations with the workforce and community, and tough decisions followed.

However, as a result, we have a budget where recurring costs are under recurring revenues, and we are developing the reserves necessary to operate in a fiscally responsible manner.

I am hopeful that we are done with significant “out of season” budget adjustments, unless the city decides to transfer the water utility, which would likely require further changes.

Q. Has it been difficult, personally and professionally, to live in Seattle while working on Bainbridge Island?

A. I’ve lived in Seattle since 1979 and have known Bainbridge residents throughout that time.  Not living on Bainbridge means I need to work a bit harder to get to know the community, but I don’t see it as a barrier.

Unfortunately, I am not able to change residences because, like many others, I’ve been impacted by the decline in housing values.

Q. Your most visible and contentious actions on the job involved drafting a budget during a difficult financial situation for the city, which included decreasing and reorganizing the work force. What else have you accomplished, or continue to work on, that the community is less aware of?

A. It doesn’t sound like something dramatic, but a critical effort for the future of local government is our strategic planning effort.

We proposed, and th council is implementing, a robust planning process that will naturally inform their budget decisions each fall.

If we do a good job supporting the council with information, they can thoughtfully choose among community priorities for funding.

Budget is policy and plan, so those budgets will direct our work plan for the next year, and then the cycle repeats.  We will walk council through the information we have, identify gaps for study, and create options to address capital and deferred maintenance,  fund priority operating needs, and help with “community opportunities.”

That last bucket includes those important community investments that are possible within our resources.

Q. The impression is that you and your staff have been overloaded with the many changes that have occurred during the past eight months. Generally speaking, the community doesn’t know who you are. Will there be a time when you get more involved in the community outside of City Hall?

A. Although I have met with many people and organizations on the island, I realize I need to move out into the community more.  The dramatic changes at Bainbridge required an intense internal focus to help the organization get to a more stable place.

Over the next period of time, I hope to spend a greater percentage of my hours out of the office.

Q. What do you expect to be your biggest challenges in 2011?

A. We face the same challenges that all public sector organizations are addressing, including reduced revenues and aging infrastructure. Our state and local taxing structure is very volatile, which makes funding necessary services challenging.

The other local government administrators I talk with are making the most significant changes to their organizations that have been made in recent history, including major reorganizations of the work and reporting structures, in an attempt to best provide core services with reduced resources.

Helping organizations through such dramatic change successfully is challenging and involves some trial and error.

Q. Since you’ve arrived you’ve made some substantial changes to the way the city operates. Are you pleased with the results of the reorganization? Can the community expect more changes?

A. Because of the dramatic drop in revenues, it has been necessary to make significant cuts in staffing. We could no longer simply cut positions from a structure that was built for 152 employees in 2007 and would include only about 111 in 2011, and decided that the work itself needed to be reorganized to better focus every resource on core work.

This was extraordinarily disruptive and we had many difficult conversations, but I think that staff, leadership, and council are generally pleased with the reorganization and it is making sense to people as they work in their new roles.

The council drives significant changes; they decide if there should be a different focus for city services.  The significant issue they are considering is whether or not to transfer the water utility to another organization.

If they choose to do that, then that will necessitate additional changes to the organization.

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