Not running for office? Join the club

City Hall watchers try to recruit new blood

Many islanders are keen to diagnose the clangs, rumblings and creaks of City Hall. But fewer and fewer are willing to step inside the municipal machine with tool kit in hand.

“The perception about public office is bleak out there,” said island attorney Bob Conoley, who has for the last 15 years helped organize workshops to encourage islanders to run for local office. “People are not volunteering to run. Maybe it’s because they have an aversion to public office. Maybe it’s a lack of information.”

Over the last three City Council elections, the number and diversity of candidates has declined.

During the council election of 2001, the four open seats averaged three candidates and ensured meaningful primary elections. In 2003, the average was 2.3 per open seat. By 2005, only eight candidates ran for four seats, knocking the average down to two per position.

Races in 2003 and 2005 also saw candidates breeze into office unopposed.

The shrinking pool of candidates is producing a legislative body that is increasingly retired, middle-aged and male, with fewer parents, women, working people and folks under 40 years old running for council seats.

In 2001, most candidates had day jobs, including one civic-minded barista who had recently turned 20 years old. The 2003 race also boasted more working people than retirees. The nine would-be councilors also included a stay-at-home mom and at least one person under 40.

But by 2005, all but three of the eight council candidates were retirees.

The number of women had also declined sharply. The 2001 election produced a female council majority with four women to three men. In 2003, the number dropped to three. By 2005, the dwindling roster of women became a campaign issue when Councilwoman Debbie Vancil warned of an all-male council should her opponent, Frank Renna, draw more votes.

“Serving on the council is not just a retired, middle-aged man’s job,” said Vancil, who serves as the council’s lone female representative. “We need to encourage young people to run. We need women to run. We need balance to be a balanced council.”

While the filing deadline for four council races is still a month off, the current roster of registered candidates hints that recent trends will continue.

Central Ward incumbent Bill Knobloch and newcomer Barry Peters, who is hoping for Councilman Nezam Tooloee’s soon-to-be-vacated at-large seat, are retired men. John Waldo, also a candidate for the at-large position, retired twice but is currently self-employed as an attorney.

With incumbent councilmen Jim Llewellyn, Bob Scales and Tooloee not seeking re-election, the council is poised for a four-seat overhaul.

Conoley hopes to inspire more islanders to heed the call of “civic duty” at a candidates workshop slated for today at Bainbridge Island Commons.

“Four open (council) positions should be a real incentive,” he said. “If all four positions were won by a group of candidates, there’d be a new majority. There could be different thoughts or remedies for the lack of (council) civility or funds. There might be new thoughts for affordable housing or daycare.”

Sponsored by the Bainbridge League of Women Voters, the event features tips, advice and encouragement from current and former office holders.

Some of the challenges and sacrifices of public office are overblown, Conoley said, such as how much information a candidate may have to disclose about family, associates and businesses.

Other hurdles and hardships – like public scrutiny, low-to-zero pay, and less time with family come with the territory. But creating a balance is not impossible, said Andy Maron, who served on the council for nine years while holding down a law practice and supporting a family of six.

“You just have to decide that it’s an added job you do in the evenings and sometimes on the weekends,” said Maron, who will discuss his two terms in the 1990s during the candidates forum. “I admit, it did have some impact on my work. I clearly worked less in my office, but you learn to limit yourself...and just give as much time (to the council) as you can.”

The council, he said, benefited from the voices of working people.

“It was helpful on transit and ferry issues,” he said. “Not everybody on the council was taking the 6:20 and 7:05 ferry like me. Having a breadth of experiences and backgrounds is very beneficial to the council.”

But some potential candidates who work or care for children say the $600 monthly council stipend won’t make up for lost pay or cover additional expenses while serving elected duties.

“We need the best of Bainbridge to run,” said local activist Sally Adams. “But paying $600 a month isn’t enough unless you’re independently wealthy.”

Adams said she knows of two “excellent candidates” who opted out of a council bid after they did the math and realized the stipend wouldn’t cover child care.

Vancil agreed that higher pay may encourage a wider array of people to run.

“This isn’t a full-time job and nobody should expect to make money on this,” she said. “But if we truly want to encourage more people who will make a difference, we have to consider (raising council pay). Otherwise, it’s just retired people or wealthy people who never had to work – and we’ve had more than our fair share.”

The costs of mounting a viable campaign also limits who runs for local offices, Vancil said, estimating that a typical bid costs around $6,000. She would like to see stricter prohibitions on fundraising, possibly setting a cap at $2,000.

“This is small town politics,” she said. “This isn’t Washington D.C. We don’t get party support. So a lot of people write their own checks and that’s not fair. We need to level the playing field.”

Llewellyn believes adding a benefits package as well as doubling the council’s pay would both broaden the pool of candidates and make it a bit younger and socially diverse.

“That would certainly attract more people,” he said. “Diversity on the council is as beneficial as it is anywhere else (in) a community.”

Tooloee would also like to see more people run, but disagrees that money plays a large role in encouraging an array of candidates.

“We have a dearth of candidates for local office in all areas,” he said. “It’s a systematic problem and a terrible problem. But I don’t believe people who say pay is the issue.”

Instead, Tooloee believes the fear of exposure to an often angry public dissuades many from running.

“When you go from private citizen to public office, you become a giant target for a lot of people with narrow interests,” he said. “People call you names and attribute all kinds of untrue things to you. This should be about community service but many qualified people say, ‘I don’t need that (stuff) in my life.”

Quoting a friend, Tooloee added, “‘on Bainbridge, you run for public office so you can get sworn in to get sworn at.’”

Conoley, a former city attorney who has observed councils over the last 35 years, said public opinion about local government has taken a turn for the worse.

“You see it in the coffee shop or on the street,” he said. “People denigrate unfairly their local officials as a way to express frustration with a lot of things – consumer culture, ferry fares going up – that don’t come out of City Hall.”

Consequently, people don’t respect their elected officials and don’t want to become one themselves.

“There is a tradition of public life, of civic duty that is lacking in contemporary America,” he said. “There is a dearth of people willing to look above their family, or social group or sports team.”

Councilman Chris Snow, who will also speak at the candidates forum, agreed that current perceptions of elected service aren’t what they were in his formative years.

“I became (politically) aware during the Kennedy years when public service was thought to be a good thing, even an obligation,” he said. “I don’t see that now.”

It’s a complex atmosphere, in which the job of city councilor has become one fraught with complicated land use, development and budgetary issues. Despite the challenges, Snow says it’s all worth it.

He’s played a hand in getting Winslow Tomorrow’s plans off the ground and worked to improve the city’s budget process.

“We found compromises to help us avoid train wrecks this year,” he said. “People thank me for that. They say “we’re so glad you decided to do this service. That makes me feel good, and I’ll continue to do it.”

Start Running

The Bainbridge League of Women Voters’ three-hour candidates workshop starts at 9 a.m. today at the Bainbridge Island Commons.

Speakers include Kitsap County Auditor Karen Flynn, former city councilman Andy Maron, Councilman Chris Snow, school board member Bruce Weiland, fire commissioner David Coatsworth, park district commissioner Ken DeWitt and others.

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