Councilman Bonkowski faces concerns over conflict of interest

Long the subject of concern among shoreline property owners on Bainbridge Island, the city’s controversial update of its shoreline master program is now making internal waves on the city council.

Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos pointedly questioned Councilman Steve Bonkowski about a possible conflict of interest over the update of the regulations at the council’s July 11 meeting.

Bonkowski recently became a property owner on the Point Monroe sand spit, an area that is getting extra attention in the rewrite of the shoreline master program.

The question arose during talk of an expanded contract for Herrera, an environmental consulting firm that will help the city develop regulations for the Point Monroe sand spit. Bonkowski pressed his other council members to alter language in the contract that sets out what Herrera would study as work continues on the new shoreline plan.

The sand spit arches off the north end of the island and is lined with houses, many that have docks stretching into its lagoon. City planners have said the area is so unique that it was difficult to fit it into a specific designation in the shoreline master program, and Herrera has been hired to help form a designation that works.

Home-owners on the spit, and other waterfront areas, have been vocal about the final designations that their neighborhoods will receive, as some of the more restrictive designations will limit the development potential of certain properties.

Bonkowski’s question about the contract was aimed at the scope of work that the consultants will do, and the science they would use.

“It wasn’t clear to me that it had the breadth we had agreed on before,” Bonkowski said.

Hytopoulos, however, was uneasy about Bonkowski’s involvement with the topic, since any change to the regulations that cover Point Monroe will affect his property.

Bonkowski noted that he had already divulged that he was a waterfront property owner during a previous meeting devoted to the shoreline program.

Even so, the issue remains for Hytopoulos.

“This is where corruption happens,” Hytopoulos said earlier this week. “It’s a concern if someone has a financial interest in something they are making a decision on.”

Bonkowski was initially wary about the matter as well, but after speaking with City Attorney Will Patton, he believes there is no conflict.

“I had already talked to the city attorney when I bought the house and asked if I needed to recuse myself from discussions on the shoreline master program,” Bonkowski said. “He said no.”

Bonkowski said that since the legislation doesn’t target him specifically, there is technically no conflict of interest.

“Generally speaking, on all land-use issues the council members are all stakeholders in one fashion or another,” Bonkowski said.

Bonkowski likened the issue to legislation surrounding farms that the council has previously approved. Various past council members have had farms on their property, yet have also discussed and voted on land-use legislation involving farms.

Patton used another example, citing the city’s utilities. Council members may be customers of the utilities, but since the utilities serve many residents, council members are allowed  to discuss and vote on utility matters.

“They couldn’t function as a legislative body if they were prohibited from voting on island-wide issues, because they are all affected by it,” Patton said.

While Bonkowski may not have a conflict of interest on the Point Monroe question, Hytopoulos is still concerned about city officials maintaining the appearance of fairness on such matters.

She cited previous times when council members have tried to keep a clear distance from questionable situations.

“When I was a mayor and we appointed my uncle to the [Utility Advisory Committee], I didn’t touch the appointment at all,” Hytopoulos said. “You just have to make a big production of being transparent.”

“At the end of the day, it would be safer for (Bonkowski) to recuse himself from issues around Point Monroe,” she added.

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