Contentious search for Bainbridge city manager turns cooperative

It wasn’t dramatic or action-packed, but the city council was able to awe the chambers Wednesday — by agreeing with each other.

The end result wasn’t easy. The council spent much time engaging in back-and-forth arguments over which executive search firms to interview and how an interim city manager would be found.

However, rare unanimous votes were cast as compromises were found on the dais. The back-to-back, 6-0 votes prompted public applause.

The council added three firms to the mix, and five firms will now be asked to come interview for the job of finding a new city manager.

The council’s ad hoc committee will also return in two weeks with recommendations for an interim city manager, possibly Morgan Smith, the current acting city manager.

There was a wee bit of drama before the council reached unity.

Councilman Bob Scales criticized the ad hoc committee that’s taken the lead on the search.

He said the group — Councilwoman Anne Blair, Councilman Steve Bonkowski and Councilman David Ward — had been working in secret.

“This was my concern when I voted against having this committee, basically doing all this stuff behind closed doors,” Scales said. “I don’t agree with the committee’s direction.”

Speaking for the ad hoc committee, Bonkowski reminded Scales that the committee has often briefed the council at their weekly meetings to discuss the progress and details of their work, in addition to letting the council know what they were planning to do.

“None of this has been done in secret or in private,”  Bonkowski said.

He reminded Scales that the committee had also presented a budget for the work in early February.

“There isn’t anything that is new or unique that we’re presenting,” he said.

“There isn’t anything that the ad hoc committee has been doing that hasn’t been pre-briefed.”

Scales and Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos pressed the committee to consider hiring Smith as an interim city manager.

Hytopoulos said that she favored keeping Smith in the position as it would save the city money instead of paying another person to come in on a temporary basis.

Scales also said he was uncomfortable with how the committee had been handling the interim city manager search.

“It would be different if the ad hoc committee had a specific person in mind and they came back and gave the council and the community a very specific rational as to why this is the ideal interim city manager,” Scales said.

“You’re trolling for people,” he added.

Scales said an interim manager would need time to get up to speed with city business.

“You’re making it up as you go along,” Scales added. “Morgan is familiar with every single issue facing the city right now and she can hit the ground running. We need Morgan Smith.”

Bonkowski had no objection to considering Smith as the interim, and he said the city wasn’t looking for a “change agent.” He also stressed that the committee had been open and transparent in its dealings with the full council on the topic of an interim manager.

“I don’t agree with your characterization that we are trolling for any warm body to come in here,” Bonkowski said. “I am really insulted by that characterization.”

Even so, the council was able to find common ground. They voted unanimously for the ad hoc committee to return on April 11 with a recommendation for an interim city manager; that proposal may include Smith in the post.

Scales also took issue with the selection of search firms for the new city manager.

The committee had reviewed the offers from six search firms and whittled the list down to two frontrunners, Prothman and Strategic Government Resources.

Scales first said that while Prothman is a good search firm, it has a poor track record with the city. He said Bainbridge had used the firm 15 times since 2003, and that all the candidates they placed with the city had been terminated or  left their positions.

Scales suggested a closer look at the search firms of the Mercer Group and Waters Consulting Group.

The council eventually agreed to include those two with Affion Public, Prothman and Strategic Government Resources.

The five firms will be asked to come to Bainbridge Island.

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