Anger reigns at citizens’ town forum

Islanders at a town forum discuss actions and accountability of elected officials.

At the American Legion Hall on Tuesday, nearly 150 islanders filed slowly into chairs arranged in concentric circles.

In the innermost circle sat city councilors and the mayor, alongside citizens who, many felt, had hitherto been relegated to the outer ripples of the political process.

Along with rounded rows of inquisitive islanders, the rest of the room was filled with questions about city spending, accountability, Winslow Tomorrow, the community’s role in decision making and whether the city needs a new form of government.

“How can you be responsive to the public if there are no advisory votes taken to tell you how the public feels?” said one woman, whose comment was met with hearty applause.

No votes were taken Tuesday, but leaders got a sampling of island sentiments based on comments put forth at the town hall, organized jointly by citizens and the American Legion.

The point of the meeting, organizers said, was to open a constructive dialogue between the community and its elected officials. Facing numerous needs and a weakening economy, islanders have increasingly expressed feelings of distrust toward – and a perceived disconnect with – city government.

Several meeting attendees said work being carried out at the city – in particular Winslow Tomorrow-associated projects like the Winslow Way Streetscape – doesn’t correspond with the will of the majority of the public.

Leaders have admitted that projects need to be prioritized based on community input, but no vehicle currently exists to accurately measure that input.

The council’s Community Relations Committee hopes to expedite a public survey process that would give the city more information. Many at Tuesday’s meeting felt a survey wouldn’t be enough.

“When you guys put out a (major) bond in our name,” said one woman, “that needs to be voted on by the public.”

But others felt decisions should be left to those in charge.

“I’m concerned about the whole democratic process grinding to a halt,” one man said. “By electing (officials) we give them the authority to spend money on our behalf, not come running to us every time there’s a big issue.”

Planning Commission Chair Maradel Gale said a public vote on Winslow Tomorrow – something many have called for – would be a “meaningless concept” because the downtown planning effort was a vision, not a concrete proposal.

Others said specific, definable elements could and should be put to a vote, especially those that would cause sweeping and irrevocable change.

“When you’re talking about a total redevelopment of your downtown, that’s different than just changing the pipes,” said Kirsten Hytopoulos of the Streetscape. “I think what you’re hearing from people here is frustration about elements (of Winslow Tomorrow) that are frightening to them.”

Discussion at several points veered to the recent benchmarking study, which found the city spends more on average than other comparable cities.

Councilors said work will be done to implement some of the study’s recommendations. Foremost among those are the definition of leaders’ roles, a topic that opened the meeting and recurred throughout; a workshop to discuss the matter will be held by the council on Feb. 27.

Council Chair Bill Knobloch said the council’s role is to wisely spend taxpayer money and set policy.

“If the mayor doesn’t implement that policy,” he said, “then we have a problem.”

Talk of roles caused many to ask whether the city should consider switching to a Council/Manager form of government. The issue has gained traction of late following continued dysfunction at City Hall.

Though many are optimistic that the new council and city administrator will improve matters, leaders on Tuesday had varying reactions to the suggestion.

“I could go either way,” said Councilwoman Kim Brackett, one of three new council members.

Councilman Kjell Stoknes said the new mix of personalities in leadership roles will make a big difference.

“Last year neither form would have worked,” he said. “This year either form would work. In either case, we have to be careful who we vote for.”

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, whose position would be eliminated in the case of such a shift, said cooperation, rather than a specific governmental structure, is key to a productive city. She said she is partly to blame for past problems.

“I don’t care what system you have,” she said. “If people aren’t willing to work together, the system is not going to work.”

The need for better communication has continually been stressed by leaders, who say strides have been made in the new year.

Still, Councilwoman Debbie Vancil last week was critical of Kordonowy’s handling of the search for a new city administrator. She said council members, despite increased efforts, often remain out of the loop.

On Tuesday, Vancil stood by her criticism, but said she’s optimistic things will continue to improve.

The city last week announced the appointment of Police Chief Matt Haney to the role of interim city administrator. Haney will fill in for the recently departed Mary Jo Briggs, who announced her resignation in July following ongoing tension at City Hall.

Questions were raised about why the position wasn’t filled sooner, or whether Haney should have been tabbed at all.

“He doesn’t belong in that position,” Sally Adams said. “We need him as police chief.”

Deputy Chief Mark Duncan is acting chief while Haney performs his interim role.

Affordable housing came up several times. Some wondered why leaders haven’t incorporated alternative solutions developed by community members; others said the city should have a full-time staff member dedicated to affordable housing.

“It’s outrageous to me that a city of this means cannot and hasn’t yet funded a person who can put 100 percent of their time toward housing issues,” said one woman.

Knobloch stressed that he and his colleagues are working with minimal resources.

“We’re perceived as a wealthy community,” he said. “But your government is struggling.”

Several other topics came up over the course of the evening, including a controversial bond transaction that occurred in December.

One Legion member wanted to know why more veterans returning from service abroad haven’t been hired at City Hall. Many lamented excess process or said the city spends too much money on consultants.

Primarily, though, attendees talked about being heard.

Many agreed the event – which was televised by Bainbridge Island Television – was useful, and said they would participate if similar discussions were held in the future. American Legion Adjutant Fred Scheffler said the Legion would be willing to host again; leaders, too, said they would again participate.

“I heard from a number of people who feel they don’t have access to government,” Kordonowy said. “People want a voice not only in conversation but in voting on big issues.

I think this country is changing. Citizens want more direct input in changes, and that’s something this government is going to have to consider.”

Richard LaBotz said consideration is nice, but he would prefer more change, rather than more words.

“You’re all so darn nice,” he told the mayor and council. “It’s hard to give constructive criticism when you present yourselves as pure as driven snow – but you don’t have very good track records.”

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