Decade of city service ends

Bill Knobloch sits at the desk in his home office that has been the center of his work as a council member over the past ten years. - Willie Wenzlau
Bill Knobloch sits at the desk in his home office that has been the center of his work as a council member over the past ten years.
— image credit: Willie Wenzlau

Bill Knobloch eased back in his chair early Wednesday night, eager to witness his favorite show unravel.

While others across Bainbridge Island were switching on their television set to engage the usual prime-time programming, Knobloch was watching the weekly Bainbridge City Council meeting. It was the first time in 10 years that he wasn’t watching it from the dais.

When Knobloch stepped down from council at the end of December, he left holding the record as the longest serving council member in the city’s 20-year history. He has taken part in a number of significant moments in the city’s progress, from its growth, change of its form of government, and its difficulties during economic hardships.

In turn, he has garnered significant praise and criticism from the island’s often divided citizens.

“Bill has never questioned what his job was or what he was elected to do – stand up for the citizens of Bainbridge Island,” said former council member Debbie Vann, who served with Knobloch early on. “He was elected and then re-elected twice because that is what he stands for.”

During his time on council he has navigated a number of divisive local issues, as well as philosophies on how city government should run. Despite this, Knobloch finds solace in the core philosophy that he says guided him throughout his time on council.

“I feel that I was able to deliver the message that council members have a responsibility to their community and not the city,” Knobloch said. “My basic philosophy about public service is that I am there to serve the citizens and not the city. It’s that simple.”

Now Knobloch feels that it is time to divert more of his attention toward his family — he has five children and 15 grandchildren — and spend more time with his wife.

“My husband is a good man with a moral compass,” said Liz Knobloch.

A new council member

Knobloch grew up in New York and attended Fordham University in the Bronx before being drafted into the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war. He became a pilot, eventually a squadron commander, and flew over the North Pole twice. After leaving the Navy, he transferred his skills over to the civilian world as an airline pilot.

He spent his career flying for Pacific Southwest Airlines (later purchased by US Airways) and journeyed to a number of domestic and international destinations. At one point his co-pilot was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, later known as the pilot who landed US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River.

“It was a real pleasure to fly with Bill Knobloch,” Sullenberger said. “Bill was a true professional who always had a smile on his face. He treated people with respect, and I’m not surprised that he chose to enter public service.”

In 1988, Knobloch retired to Bainbridge Island with his wife, became involved locally and watched his family grow.

“Bainbridge is a very special, one-of-a-kind community and I say that with confidence due to my traveling,” Knobloch said. “We could have lived anywhere in the U.S. and we chose Bainbridge.”

After becoming involved in a neighborhood land-use issue, he earned the respect of his neighbors. Knobloch recalls being asked to a neighborhood meeting organized by his friend Barbara Kowalski. When he entered a room full of community members, he was asked if he would run for city council.

“I said ‘OK,’ and then everyone left.” Knobloch said. “I then went up in my first election against all odds and won.”

His council service began in January 2002.

Community first

At one end of Knobloch’s home is his realm — his office. The walls bear recognitions from the Navy and paintings of aircraft. His desk is established at the center of the room. He keeps a file with recognitions he has received during his time on council — he is the only council member to have been given a leadership award from the Association of Washington Cities. He has its own separate phone line dedicated to the community — it rings often.

This is his operation room during the last 10 years, answering phone calls and writing emails. He became a hands-on council member.

“It starts early in the morning, people call, and I advise them what to do and at times I would escort them in to see the mayor, or the city administrator, or a department head, and that’s where the mayor (Darlene Kordonowy) and I first butted heads,” Knobloch said. “She said, ‘I’m in charge of this city hall and you don’t go talking to employees without talking to me first.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not how it works. I am their representative as an elected official.’”

The city’s finances was one topic he consistently raised issues with, and again clashed with his colleagues — whether the topic was the Winslow Way project or reviewing annual budgets.

“The present administrative structure at the city is top heavy and overburdened with overhead cost and does not fit the size of our revenue base,” Knobloch said. “The only way you are going to be able to have a sustainable government is to cut the cost of government and reduce the size of government, which has recently been going on only because the city has no money to pay salaries.”

In 2003, Knobloch drafted the city’s first ethics ordinance.

“There was strong opposition to it from the mayor and city administrator, so strong that it was put on hold,” Vann said. “But Bill never wavered from his passion to have an ethics board for our city elected (officials), staff and commissions.”

Council tensions

From the change of the city’s government to the Winslow Way project, Knobloch has been outspoken on a number of heated issues, coming across abrasive at times. During his time on council he maintained a small-city approach to governing, making no secret of his desire to have less city staff and costs, setting him at odds with the other council members.

In recent years, Knobloch commonly and publicly spoke of “the four,” referring to four members on council whom he felt voted in unison, effectively drawing a line down the council and creating significant tension. Council decisions, such as the recent controversial decision to retain the city’s water utility, were often passed by a 4-3 vote, with Knobloch in the minority.

“Their voting record demonstrates clearly, they supported whatever city administration wanted,” Knobloch said.

Such criticism culminated in a number of events as Knobloch was leaving council. He was accused of either authoring a controversial memo for newly elected council members, or merely making copies of it on a city copy machine. The memo was considered by some to be a manifesto to overturn the council.

Soon after, fellow council member Bob Scales placed a public records request on Knobloch’s personal email account for any communications involving city business — even on a personal email account, any communications by an elected official pertaining to city business are considered public records.

Concerns over Knobloch’s possible mixing of personal emails with city business were previously documented at a council meeting in October where Scales offered a stack of printed emails from Knobloch’s personal account. The records request not only addressed the accusations relating to the controversial memo — which Scales said contained ideas that he has heard from Knobloch over years of working with him — but also communications with the Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance, which has an ongoing lawsuit against the city over utility rates.

The request remains open as Knobloch works to complete it.

Knobloch boils down much of the tension between city factions to everyone arguing over the same point, but with different methods. According to Knobloch, there is a group of islanders he calls the “self-rule faction,” and they become concerned over any changes being made to the city.

“It all goes back to how we became a city in the first place … with the self-rule faction,” Knobloch said. “Since then if there is an attempt to adjust the city, they view it as a threat to self rule. I believe as a community we should rule ourselves, but the present size and structure of our government is not sustainable...we are adjusting so we can self govern ourselves. This is the main dividing issue. For the community to come together, each faction has to understand that they all agree on one thing, that they all want to govern themselves.”

Not entirely gone

During the campaigns to fill council seats leading up to his exit, Knobloch publicly endorsed four candidates — three of which won. He perceives the election as the community sending a message to the council.

“I am very optimistic about our future on the island,” he said. “We have a new council that is going to change the present dynamic and work with people – they’ll act in the best interest of the community, which is learning that it is most important to get to know your candidates and what their views are...this community is very sophisticated, not only intellectually but politically, and for any council member not to understand that is doomed to failure. If you have your own personal agenda, and support the city administration, you’ll never survive.”

While his days on council are over, Knobloch doesn’t plan on quitting his activities of public service. His community phone line remains active, and he still answers it.

“I’ll stay involved,” Knobloch said. “What happens is that you realize you’re an asset for certain areas and you have a responsibility to help. Why would you walk away and say, ‘I’m not going to talk to you anymore’”?


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