Council debate a model of civility

The proceedings were civil.

And that, following ongoing and well-publicized bickering among current City Councilors, was a welcome sight for attendees at a packed council candidate debate Tuesday at the Bainbridge Commons.

“It’s easy to point fingers,” said current councilman and Central Ward candidate Bill Knobloch, of past struggles. “I’ve done everything I could to make peace.”

Council relations – along with growth, affordable housing, Winslow Tomorrow, and the island’s economy and water supply – were at the forefront of discussion as candidates squared off in preparation for next month’s primary election.

Ballots should arrive in select island mailboxes no later than Aug. 10, and must be filled out and postmarked by Aug. 21 to count. Polling places will not be open for the mail-only primary.

Only voters located in the south and central wards will participate in this round of the election, which will winnow those council races down to two candidates for the general election in November.

The most crowded contest is for incumbent Bill Knobloch’s Central Ward seat. Challenging him are attorney John Waldo, artist and environmental activist CarolAnn Barrows, and stay-at-home mother Lauren Sato Ellis.

Candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant South Ward seat are retired Navy officer Robert Dashiell, environmental activist Kim Brackett and retired federal transportation manager Curtis Winston.

Candidates for the two other contested seats didn’t participate in the debate because the primary only features races in which three or more candidates declared.

Tuesday’s two-hour forum was sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce and moderated by former city councilor Andy Maron. It will be shown throughout the weekend on Bainbridge Island Television.

Each candidate was allowed an opening and closing statement, between which Maron asked audience-generated questions about island issues.

South Ward candidates debated first, with the Winston’s opening speech kicking off the night.

“I’m concerned about where this island is going,” he said, before criticizing city spending and the “endless process” that has stymied progress at City Hall.

Winston contends there are too many citizen committees. He said the island government should return its focus to the “basics,” including roads and waste disposal, instead of “multi-million dollar parking garages.”

Initiating what became a common theme of the evening, he also stressed the need to improve council relations.

Brackett outlined her three-pronged agenda for office including environmental policy, fiscal responsibility and management philosophy.

“I intend to introduce a ‘greenprint’ decision-making protocol that includes elements of sustainability, preservation, conservation and protection of natural resources,” Brackett said.

She, like her opponents, returned often to the subjects of spending and water.

“Our quality of life is determined by our surroundings and our pocketbook,” she said. “We must manage our tax dollars prudently.”

Dashiell started off his speech by saying he was running without the aid of campaign donations, to avoid the perception that any future he decisions he might make as a councilor would be “influenced by money.”

Wagging a gold credit card for emphasis, he too was critical of spending.

“This city is starting to live on credit card debt,” he said.

Regarding growth, Dashiell said he supported the concept of the state’s Growth Management Act, about which each of the candidates were asked.

“I’m a believer in the GMA,” he said. “I think that society has a responsibility to protect the environment and plan growth so it doesn’t sprawl.”

City spending, affordable housing and providing basic services, like roads, were his top priorities.

In both debates, candidates were asked a dozen different questions ranging from personal business experience to the future of the local economy.

Knobloch kicked off the second debate by touting his experience as councilor. His priorities, he said, are city finances, a water study and Winslow Tomorrow.

At several points he addressed his views of council relations and the council’s role in city government.

“Leadership is about trust and confidence,” he said. “You empower the people that are doing the work for you and you hold them accountable. That is not going on at City Hall with some of my colleagues.”

Ellis agreed, saying that relations at City Hall “are tense at best.”

She emphasized the importance of mending relations at the city, along with a “safe and walkable downtown” and youth programs.

“I’m running to represent the women and minorities and young people of our community,” the 23-year-old said.

Calling herself a “student of this community,” she said the council needs new perspectives.

Waldo immediately criticized council relations.

“When people look at our government what they see are seemingly endless arguments over trivia,” he said. “What they don’t see are results.”

Waldo several times referenced his work in city affairs, including work on Winslow Tomorrow.

His top priorities are repairing relations at city hall, Winslow Tomorrow, and reining in what he sees as excessive citizen process.

“We should still have citizen input,” he said. “But we should have it at the right time.”

Barrows opened with a curveball, saying she decided not to prepare a speech.

“This evening I decided to challenge myself and wing it,” she said. “I am running because I cannot in good conscience allow what I see happening at our city to continue.”

She cited city spending, population allocation and potable water as her top priorities.

Asked about how the island should absorb growth, Barrows made an anatomical analogy that was met with laughter by some in the crowd.

“When a human body realizes maturity it stops growing,” she said. “And if it keeps growing it’s called obesity.

“If we grow beyond our means to be able to support this growth, we’re going to have nothing but trouble.”

Neither debate was contentious, with candidates keeping to their allotted answer periods and rarely addressing each other’s statements.

There were, however, some subtle confrontations, particularly in the second debate. With Knobloch sitting at the table, discussion continually returned to strained council relations.

Asked about affordable housing, Ellis, herself a renter, said the city should rework its old affordable housing ordinance, before making a suggestion:

“I also think we should explore the idea of having a developer tax that goes into an affordable housing fund so that we at the city aren’t directly funding all affordable housing on the island.”

To which Waldo, who was up next, replied:

“This is horribly difficult, partly because the state of Washington doesn’t give us a lot to work with since they say we can’t actually tax development even for as good a cause as affordable housing.”

In general, candidates agreed about a number of issues, especially the importance of determining how much water the city has, and on the need to replace failing infrastructure beneath Winslow Way.

Opinions about Winslow Tomorrow and the island’s economy varied some.

“You’re not going to like to hear this,” Winston said, “but Bainbridge Island is essentially a bedroom community for Seattle.”

He said that commuters, along with retirees, drive the local service economy.

Brackett, meanwhile, said she had a “different vision” of the local economy. She stressed the need for a self-contained downtown.

“I’d like to see a downtown that’s livable and not just a place to visit,” she said.

Dashiell said the key to the local economy is Winslow Tomorrow. He thinks the city’s Planning Commission – which currently is reviewing proposed changes associated with the long-range planning effort – ultimately will scale the plan back.

“I like Winslow the way it is,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in danger of becoming a ghost town.”

Several candidates criticized talk of a downtown parking garage, saying satellite parking for downtown employees should be explored instead.

“We don’t need all that la-de-da stuff,” Winston said.

As for the recurring topic of civility, Dashiell referred to his time spent crammed into a nuclear submarine.

“You can’t live in a sub for two years without getting along with people.”

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