Pollock to call for hearings on Planning Dept.

Bainbridge Island City Council chair Michael Pollock sees a high level of citizen frustration with the city’s planning department.

And although Pollock acknowledges that the department’s function is an administrative matter, he says that little has changed during the year Mayor Darlene Kordonowy has been in office.

Therefore, he says, it’s time for the council to act. At tonight’s meeting, Pollock intends to call for council hearings into how the department can be made more effective and user-friendly.

“I frankly don’t know whether that would make matters better or worse, but it will at least focus attention where it needs to be,” Pollock said.

What has brought matters to a head is the recent controversy over city shoreline regulations, especially a Bainbridge Island Planning Commission session some three weeks ago where citizens related their frustration over dealing with planners in the permitting process.

“The system’s broken – that’s what has come out of the hearings,” Pollock said. “This is what we need to discuss. It’s not the rules, it’s the process.”

Councilwoman Christine Nasser Rolfes, who chairs the council’s land use committee, agrees that the issue is bigger than the current shoreline flap.

“Our overall goal is to make the permitting system predictable and provide better customer service,” she said. “We want more consistent enforcement and interpretation, and to identify conflicts and ambiguities in the code.”

Pollock said he was particularly disturbed by so-called “guidelines” for planting buffer areas, developed by the planning staff, that referred to trees being required in buffer areas.

While the department has withdrawn that document from use, its existence has inflamed opponents of the shoreline proposals.

“I don’t know how that came into existence without the council’s knowledge, much less approval,” Pollock said.

The mayor was in meetings and unavailable for comment Monday and before deadline Tuesday.

Pollock said he feels entitled to speak up because when he ran for council three years ago, one of his basic issues was the way he had been treated as a citizen activist opposing the Woodland Village subdivision on Ferncliff.

“They made us feel very unwelcome when we asked questions,” he said. “It was less like ‘how can we answer your questions’ and more like ‘who are you and why do you want to know.’”

Nasser Rolfes agreed that the planning process has become a lightning rod for citizen dissatisfaction, but that does not mean the planning department is necessarily to blame, she said.

“There have been problems with billings, which are the responsibility of finance,” she said. “Public works has a lot to do with permitting. And some of the problem is the code itself – what planners are given to deal with.”

Improving the planning process, she said, will take a system-wide effort. “This is the responsibility of everyone. We have been looking at the pieces, but now, we need to fix the system.”

Council split

Pollock’s plan does not enjoy unanimous support on the council, with some questioning the propriety of the legislative body tackling an issue technically under the mayor’s purview.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an administrative problem,” Councilman Norm Wooldridge said. “The mayor and the administrator are well aware of the problems in the planning department. I have every confidence that they’re (addressing them) in a manner that’s as expeditious as possible.

“I see no need for the council to get into what is an administrative responsibility.”

Pollock said he also intends to bring up two related issues.

First, he wants the city to deal with the shoreline by putting its time and money into projects that will directly benefit salmon, such as an estuary-restoration project in Murden Cove and repairing culverts that may be blocking salmon migrations up streams like Issei Creek.

“We know that creating estuary areas directly benefits salmon,” said Pollock, a marine biologist by profession. “So we have put $300,000 in the budget to support estuarine restoration in the Manitou area.”

He has not been persuaded that the scientific evidence provides much support for requiring a buffer of native vegetation along the shoreline.

“We should focus on problems we really can fix rather than trying to control shoreline uses through uncertain science,” he said.

Second, he believes the planning process can be de-mystified if the department makes available internal interpretations, rulings and procedures in a handbook that would be made available to all planners and to the general public.

“We need a clear set of rules that every planner understands,” he said. “The flex-lot (subdivision) ordinance gets completely different interpretations depending on the planner.”

Pollock said he is most concerned about the corrosive effect that interaction with the planning department seems to have on the island’s citizens.

“We have an enormous reservoir of citizen goodwill on this island,” he said. “How the planning department has managed to take that goodwill and turn it into anger and resentment is something we really need to investigate.”

SIDEBAR: Closed-door session planned

Doors closed

The council was to hold a two-hour executive session last night on unspecified “personnel issues” believed to relate to City Administrator Lynn Nordby.

Nordby confirmed Tuesday that he had specifically not been invited to the meeting, which was called abruptly Monday by unspecified council members. The administrator normally attends such sessions.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who received the council notice, was out of the office Tuesday morning and was unavailable for comment.

At a budget workshop last week, Councilwoman Deborah Vann said the city doesn’t need a full-time administrator. Members at that meeting also raised questions about the need for a city personnel director. But Tuesday, several council members declined to comment on the specifics of the executive session.

“All I can say is, the budget has raised some questions that have to be answered,” Councilman Bill Knobloch said of Tuesday’s executive session.

It would be the second closed-door session this year concerning the administrator. Several city council members called a similar session in January to discuss what sources later termed “unfounded rumors” about specific aspects of Nordby’s performance.

Nordby has served as administrator since the all-island city was formed in 1991.

He said Tuesday that he was disappointed by the lack of communication from those council members who seem to be unhappy with his performance.

“They have made a studied effort to avoid me for 10 months, then say they don’t believe I have anything to contribute,” he said. “For 30 years, I have taken pride in my ability to work with diverse people, including elected officials, but some of the council members have not given me that opportunity.”

State law and the Bainbridge Island municipal code prevent the city council from firing administration officials, leaving that responsibility with the mayor.

While the council does approve budgets, it cannot de-fund a position for the specific purpose of making an incumbent resign, according to the Municipal Research Service, which made a presentation on that issue to the council earlier this year.

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