Council moves toward more transparency

After giving the mayor more spending authority, councilors take the power back.

For the sixth time in her tenure as mayor, Darlene Kordonowy stood before councilors and the community Wednesday, and delivered her thoughts on the state of the city.

She started with a look back at the substance of her previous addresses, before turning her attention to a recurring topic at City Hall – the need for change.

“I like to talk about big ideas,” she said. “(But) I’ve come to understand in the last year that I need to change focus. I need to listen more closely to community members and my colleagues at the dais.”

After her address, Kordonowy received a round of applause. Then, echoing her call for greater transparency in government, councilors made a statement of their own, by cutting the mayor’s spending authority from $100,000 to $10,000.

That authority – the maximum dollar value of a contract the mayor can authorize without council approval – has been at issue since last year, when councilors voted to raise the number in stages, from $10,000 to $25,000, and eventually to $100,000 at the beginning of this year.

Under the law, the approved funds must have already been appropriated in the budget.

Last year’s change was made to improve efficiency by limiting the number of smaller items that come before the council each meeting. Leaders thought the shift would allow the council more time to deal with big ticket issues.

On Wednesday, councilors said a more crowded agenda is worth greater oversight of spending, particularly given the city’s growing financial constraints and public distrust.

The ordinance before councilors Wednesday would have returned the limit to $25,000, but was amended by Councilwoman Debbie Vancil to reduce the number to $10,000.

City Finance Director Elray Konkel said a limit of $50,000 is typical in other cities.

“The intention is to provide greater transparency in government,” Vancil said. Otherwise, she added, leaders are asking the public to accept their decisions in good faith, and “faith-based government is never a good thing.”

The amendment passed 4-3, with councilmen Chris Snow, Kjell Stoknes and Barry Peters voting against it. The amended ordinance was then passed unanimously.

“I don’t think this represents an opportunity for wild and frivolous contracting,” Snow said of a $25,000 limit. “I think we need to trust (the mayor) to act responsibly.”

The transparency theme spilled into public comment, when City Hall watcher Rod Stevens criticized the city for responding sluggishly to public records requests.

“It’s very hard to get information,” Stevens said, citing both his own struggles – one recent request of his, he said, took 45 days – and those of others.

Stevens appealed to the state Attorney General’s office, prompting a letter to the city this month from Open Government Ombudsman Timothy Ford, who encouraged the city to, among other things, consider hiring a full-time public records officer.

“To the extent that resources are available, agencies should have a dedicated public records officer whose job is not commingled with other duties,” the letter says.

“Where employees are required to balance duties that are not related to public records disclosure, there will undoubtedly be delay in disclosure.”

Records requests now are handled by the city clerk, who also has other responsibilities.

The mayor, in her address, said she is encouraged by the work done so far by the new council. She stressed the importance of continued change, both in her own actions and those of her colleagues, following a “challenging budget process.”

“We need to focus and we need to prioritize,” she said. “I too must change and refocus from my own agenda.”

Along with revamped capital plan and budget processes, the city this year will for the first time craft a biennial budget.

To encourage public involvement, Kordonowy said council meetings will go on the road this year, making stops in the various council wards beginning in late March. That practice was well-received in the past, but was eventually discontinued.

Kordonowy also spoke about implementing the recommendations of last year’s benchmarking study, which among other things found the city spends more than comparable cities elsewhere; the coming community survey that will be used to help the city prioritize its work; and the Winslow Way Streetscape, which continues to be the most polarizing project on the planning horizon.

“Whatever the right decision is,” Kordonowy said of the Streetscape, “I know this council will make that decision. The future of Bainbridge Island is at stake.”

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