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Mayor-council rift nears flash point

EDITOR'S NOTE: This version has been updated from an earlier print version, correcting the misquoting of a source.

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Bainbridge City Council chair Michael Pollock thinks Mayor Darlene Kordonowy should have a lawyer advise her on the parameters of her job.

His complaint: Kordonowy interjects herself into policy discussions, and policy is the exclusive province of the council.

“She really likes to be involved in policy discussions – she’s a policy person, not an administrative person,” Pollock said. “The council meetings are for the council to conduct business, and the mayor’s interjections are disruptive.”

The mayor sees matters the other way around.

Kordonowy agrees that both council and mayor need more clarity about their roles, but says the council also needs to accept its limitations.

“They want to change things, to make things happen differently,” she said. “But they need to understand that their job is to determine where we want to go. How to make things happen is my job.”

Some of the council – chiefly new members Bill Knobloch, Deborah Vann, Deborah Vancil, and council chair Michael Pollock – have since January been at odds with Mayor Kordonowy over a number of matters, including commission appointments and the apportionment of space and staffing in city hall.

And while Kordonowy says, “We got off to a bad start, but things are improving,” differences remain.

So great are the differences, in fact, that at least one council member is discussing the possibility of abolishing the mayor’s office, and going instead to a council-city manager form of government.

“We’re not there yet,” Knobloch said in a recent interview. “We’ll see how things go in the next couple of months.”

Knobloch says trying to change the form of government may be a way of resolving the conflicts between council and administration.

“When the council enacts a policy, it’s up to the mayor and the city administrator to implement it,” Pollock said in an interview last week. “But if the administrator doesn’t feel like administering, there’s nothing the council can do about it.”

That would change, Knobloch says, if the city adopted the council-manager form of government. There would be no mayor, and the elected council members would appoint – and have the power to fire – a city manager.

“In cities like that, when the council tells the administrator to do it, it gets done,” Knobloch said.

While the council could put the issue on the ballot, the change would need a majority vote of islanders. When the same issue was put on the ballot in the spring of 1993, during the term of mayor Sam Granato, voters overwhelmingly opposed the change and opted to retain the mayor’s office.

One key difference – in 1993, the council-manager government were not grounded in any disputes between the mayor’s office and the council. Instead, it was proposed by an outside group, the League of Women Voters, as a post-annexation examination of island government.

Is it personal?

By all accounts, the current conflicts between council and mayor spring not from any overriding policy differences, but from a series of small irritations.

And veteran council member Norm Wooldridge, midway through his second term, says the problems are personal.

“Rules are a small part of the problem,” he said. “We need psychological counseling – a marriage counselor. I don’t think having a lawyer (to explain the legal relationships) is going to be very productive.”

At a May 15 meeting of the council’s powerful operations committee, Kordonowy and several council members agreed to consider bringing in an “industrial psychologist” to help them bridge their personal differences.

Pollock was not present at that meeting, represented instead by Knobloch.

“We need to hire a mental-health type,” said Deborah Vann, herself a retired therapist. “But I don’t know how much money we want to put in.

“We have seven people with strong personalities and definite ideas.”

By Pollock’s account, one point of contention is what he and others perceive to be Kordonowy’s “over-involvement” in council discussions.

That issue flared in an April 27 letter from Knobloch to Pollock requesting a number of changes that Knobloch contended would “reflect a more legitimate policy making process when conducting city council business.”

Under Washington state law, which governs non-charter cities like Bainbridge Island, the mayor is directed to “preside” over city council meetings. But the gist of Knobloch’s proposals was that the mayor, who the letter refers to as a “meeting facilitator,” speak only upon council request.

Knobloch’s letter asked for a change whereby “the Mayor participates in Council discussions only when asked to do so for purposes of pertinent, policy-making information.” He wanted to forbid the mayor from summarizing council discussions, and to limit the time for the mayor’s report, including city hall announcements, to five minutes.

Knobloch said in an interview after the meeting that his objective was to “bring...out on the table for discussion (an issue) that nobody was willing to discuss.”

The proposal was to be discussed by the operations committee at the May 15 meeting, but was pulled from the agenda at Wooldridge’s request.

“This is offensive and divisive,” Wooldridge said. “I hope it will go away.”

Knobloch said that he met privately with Kordonowy after making the request, and is willing to withdraw it.

Also generating friction is the council’s request for more office space in city hall.

Pollock and Knobloch said that a number of council members toured the second floor of the building and suggested that a space now used as a conference room could be turned into council offices.

But instead of simply assenting, Kordonowy brought in city hall architect Craig Curtis at a cost of $3,100 to study the matter.

“He said, ‘It’s obvious,’ and came to the same conclusion we did,” said Pollock, who said the “study” was a delaying tactic by the mayor.

Kordonowy, though, has mulled other options, including turning the largely unused “self-help” area off the city hall foyer into council office space.

The council’s requests for lap-top computers sparked the same sort of disagreement.

“This was a minor request, and (Kordonowy) made it into a six-month process,” Pollock said, claiming the administration has inflated cost estimates. Kordonowy had said that while the request was minor in and of itself, she viewed the council’s collective requests for equipment, office space and staff to be a matter that deserved public debate.

Wooldridge counsels patience by all parties.

“Some of the council members are putting so much psychological pressure on Darlene that she gets her back up,” he said. “She wants to make government work better and so do they, but they are so certain they’re right that they’re not willing to give her a chance to do things at her own pace.”

‘Spoon-fed’

The most difficult issue – still unresolved – may be the interactions between the city council and the city staff.

After the election, city Administrator Lynn Nordby sent council members a memo asking that all communications with staff be directed through him, a request that met sharp resistance from council members who did not want information “spoon-fed” to them.

Council members have begun communicating directly with the staff, and Knobloch claims that has been successful.

“They have learned that we are not the problems they feared,” he said.

Not so, says Kordonowy. She says that staff has complained frequently about requests from council members that they believe interfere with their ability to get other work done, and complain about what they perceive as inconsistent approaches.

“This is not the way it should work,” she said. “Even though the requests are somewhat minor, when you have seven people making requests to directors it adds up.”

A survey of city employees, she said, disclosed numerous sharply worded complaints about the demands from council members.

Pollock has drafted a lengthy “council manual” to spell out the functions of both mayor and council. The most important element, Pollock said, involves city staff.

“It calls for mutual non-interference,” he said. “We will not interfere with the staff’s performance of administrative functions, and the mayor would not interfere with the staff in performing legislative functions.”

The manual is being reviewed by the city attorney, Knobloch said, and should be ready for debate within a month.

“It may be explosive,” Knobloch said. “But if the mayor cannot accept it, that is when we might have to look at making a change in the form of government.”

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