Bainbridge city council argues about roles in island roads repair project

Bainbridge Island has quite a few bumpy roads spanning across it, but the bumpiest one lately is the one that runs through city hall.

The city council approved a contract to perform much-needed repairs on island roads. The approval didn’t come without a tug-of-war over the council’s proper role in roads management, however.

Last week, the council tabled the discussion on approving a contract for Doolittle Construction to perform chip seal repairs on island roads. The contract is for $334,097.

Chip seal is a method of repairing roads without fully paving them by using a mix of asphalt and fine gravel. It is typically used on roads that handle low-volume traffic.

The chip seal contract would cover island-wide road repairs for the year. Aside from other road patching, it is the city’s budgeted road repair program for the year.

The discussion was tabled since some council members felt that their previous questions regarding chip seal treatments were not adequately answered.

The city has planned to perform a double chip seal on some of the more severely damaged roads. Councilman David Ward expressed his disappointment with the public works department when asked to approve the Doolittle contract. Ward said he wanted specific information that he and council members Sarah Blossom and Steve Bonkowski needed and had asked for back in March.

They wanted to know why double chip seal was planned, instead of the cheaper option of a single chip seal.

Still, road repairs can only be performed during a limited window of time each summer, a fact that was making some council members nervous that the contract would not be approved in time.

Whether or not council members received adequate answers to their questions of why double chip seal was being used, the discussion Wednesday night revolved around if council members should be delving into such fine details in the first place.

Council members Blossom, Bonkowski, Ward and Mayor Debbi Lester said they wanted to know more about chip sealing because it was part of their responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ money was being well-spent.

Councilman Bob Scales and Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos disagreed.

“My feeling is that you will never be satisfied,” Scales said. “This is not your job. Your job is to set the budget, not to decide if we are doing single or double chip seal. That is insane.”

Hytopoulos agreed, and said that the council sets policy. It is the city manager’s job to direct city staff.

“Staff does not work for us,” Hytopoulos said. “We don’t micromanage roads programs.”

On the other side of the argument was the stance that the council should be certain that the city is being fiscally responsible on such a tight budget.

Council members Blossom, Bonkowski, Lester and Ward also stressed the point that they have been trying to address the issue for months and there has been adequate time to head the argument off.

“Approximately two and a half months ago, three city council members requested, from our public works director, information about doing single or double chip seal,” Bonkowski said. “That was expected to be presented last week. It was not.”

“We went to meet with the public works director as we were interested in the preservation of our roads,” he added. “But we want to make sure that we are spending the money that we have in the most productive way.”

Scales, however, noted an in-depth memo on the topic that had been given to the council about chip sealing earlier. He read a list of 10 other governments that currently use double chip seal road repairs.

Blossom said that the list was just a list, and said more information was needed.

Public Works Director Lance Newkirk also chimed in, after some on the council wondered why the state doesn’t rely much on double chip sealing roads. Newkirk said the state’s roads are in much better shape than the cities that use double chip sealing, and that the island’s roads are in far worse condition than elsewhere and need much more treatment.

Finally, it came time to vote on the contract.

“The only possible interpretation if we don’t vote for this now is that staff is lying,” Hytopoulos said. “They have explained why they are making this recommendation.”

“We are running out of time,” she added.

The contract was approved by a 5-2 vote, with Lester and Ward voting against it.

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