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Despite ‘lack of respect,’ Konkel to stay

Elray Konkel. -
Elray Konkel.
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Council members try to smooth things over with the city finance director.

Sometimes promises can be a job’s most enticing perk.

That was the case this week when city Finance Director Elray Konkel withdrew his application with the City of Kirkland after members of the Bainbridge City Council gave Konkel a simple pledge:

They’ll listen more.

“I thought we could do more to work better together to accomplish better things,” said Konkel, who has led the city’s finance department for two years. “We were not doing things in the most effective, expedient or respectful ways. But we’ve had some frank discussions recently in which I’ve said, ‘Hey, I’m drowning here.’”

Konkel cited high expectations placed on his department without the necessary resources or staff to meet demands as his primary motivation for seeking work with another city.

These demands come from both citizens and the council, and are often driven by community divisiveness that mires public process, he said.

“I think the council is in some ways a mirror of the community,” he said. “I get the feeling that some of us here just don’t want to get along.”

Konkel, who oversees a full-time staff of 11, hopes to make permanent two temporary staffers he currently employs in the department.

His recent meetings with councilors Bob Scales, Nezam Tooloee and Jim Llewellyn have given Konkel renewed optimism that some of his most pressing concerns, including modernizing the city’s billing systems, will get a fair hearing in the future.

“It’s sometimes challenging for elected officials to understand the financial functions, the constraints and the day-to-day efforts that I and my department staff are doing to get the job done,” he said.

Konkel has been barraged by emails from councilors asking for clarification and detailed explanations on financial issues.

He also recently was described by Tooloee as having done his budget work “on the back of a envelope,” a comment the longtime public finance officer didn’t appreciate.

“It’s a trust thing,” Konkel said. “When I hand in a spreadsheet, should the first question be, ‘How’d you get this number on this line?’ There’s a lack of respect or trust.”

The City of Kirkland showed strong interest in Konkel, who admitted that the Seattle-area suburb’s salary offer of $126,000 per year looked particularly enticing when compared to his $104,500 salary from Bainbridge.

But the pledge by some councilors to take Konkel’s concerns more seriously narrows some of that gap.

“I love this island – it’s paradise,” he said. “I had decided when I moved here that I wasn’t moving again. I like where my girls have fit in here. They’re doing well and looking at colleges. I just moved my in-laws up here last week. I want to work here and be a part of making this city better.”

Konkel was recruited by the City of Bainbridge Island in 2004 from Corona, Calif., a fast-growing city of about 130,000 residents, where he served as assistant city manager.

He came to Bainbridge with over 21 years of experience in governmental accounting, finance and administration, and is a Certified Public Accountant.

He began his finance career as an auditor for Moreland and Associates, CPAs, and served as assistant finance director for the city of Glendora, Calif., and director of finance for Pomona, Calif.

In 1991, he was named Corona’s assistant finance director and was promoted to city manager in 2001.

Konkel’s family includes wife Sharon, and three daughters, two of whom attend Bainbridge High School.

His decision to come to Bainbridge Island was considered by the administration to be a major coup for a city a fifth the size of Corona.

“He is ours again,” city Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said, after learning Konkel had withdrawn his Kirkland application. “That is such a good thing for us.”

Some councilors also had kind words for the finance director.

“I’m glad he’s sticking around,” Llewellyn said. “He’s a great manager, he’s personable and relates well to council and the general public. He has a great grasp of the budget process and what we can do to make things better.”

Llewellyn said he understands Konkel’s frustrations in dealing with the council.

“It’s like what (former mayor) Dwight Sutton used to say: working with the council is like trying to herd cats,” he said.

Llewellyn said his recent meetings marked the first candid discussions between the two parties.

“We were encouraged to let our hair down and wear our emotions on our

sleeves,” Llewellyn said. “It was the first time the council got to hear Elray’s heart. He had sincere motivations and said he did not like being accused of doing accounting on the back of a napkin.

“I think we’re going to let our highly skilled staff do their job with less oversight from the council, less of these disguised forms of micromanaging.”

Tooloee agreed that Konkel is doing a good job and should have more support.

“I’ve said more than once that, since Elray Konkel has come to the city, the Finance Department has had more (success) with basic operations. And I agree we don’t have enough horsepower there to help with the day-to-day operations.”

Still, he said some of Konkel’s difficulties stem from serious policy disagreements between the council and the administration.

“On any council, any group of elected officials, there’s going to be disagreement on many issues,” Tooloee said. “It’s possible that staff view council members advancing policies different from the administration as a kind of pain in the neck.

“But I’m not going to allow that to keep me from advancing policies that I think are right for the community. I’m not going to be a rubber stamp.”

Tooloee did join other council members in promising more productive dialogue with city staff in the future.

“We put a lot of expectations on staff,” he said. “But it runs both ways. Both sides need to be respectful and have their needs duly met.”

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