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Council: the hours are getting longer

Serving on the Bainbridge Island City Council has become time-consuming to the point that holding a full-time job is difficult at best, potentially limiting the pool of candidates who can run.

Some wonder how well the community is represented by a council that consists of four retirees, one executive at a family business, one mother with two young children and only one full-time worker.

“If we want our government to be a cross section of the island, we need to find a way of ensuring that those who are not independently wealthy or retired can participate,” said Michael Pollock, the only member of the council who works full time with prescribed hours, and the only one who commutes to Seattle.

Pollock said he can handle the 25-30 hours per week of council commitment and his job only by being a fast reader, and by forfeiting other parts of his life.

“I have given up friendships or deferred them, given up on a good night’s sleep, and my exercise suffers. All my spare time is eaten up, and I’m struggling to find the balance,” Pollock said.

Even then, Pollock said he has to “cut corners,” picking his battles, not returning every telephone call or email, and relying on the judgment of staff members he trusts rather than doing his own investigation.

At a recent meeting, council members discussed how to draw a pool of younger candidates, a discussion that included such possibilities as higher pay.

Current council members estimate that they spend an average of between 20 and 40 hours a week on council business. The higher time estimates come from the newer members, a function, in part of a learning curve.

“I started out spending 40 hours a week, because I was learning the job,” said Deborah Vann. “Now that I’ve gotten my feet on the ground, it’s more like 30 hours, depending on what’s going on, but it would be impossible if you had a full-time job where you couldn’t take time off during the day.”

In addition to the twice-monthly meetings of the full council, lasting a minimum of three hours, each member serves on one or two standing committees, which also meet twice a month for two to three hours each. Most also serve as liaisons to one or more regional bodies, adding another six to seven hours for meetings.

Preparation time, ad hoc meetings, community events and constituent contact are also significant consumers of time, the members say.

“In a community this size, every time I go out the door I’m engaged in constituent contacts, because somebody wants to talk about something,” Debbie Vancil said.

Council chair Christine Nasser Rolfes said the flexibility of the time commitment make the job more manageable.

“It’s spread out over the week, but still, I have to find care for my children to make it possible,” she said.

Bill Knobloch, who said he puts in 40 hours a week on council work, said one way of increasing the pool of potential candidates is to boost the pay from the present $600 per month, $7,200 per year.

“It needs to be tripled,” he said. “The mayor needs to be full time, and the council should be upgraded accordingly. You always run the risk of the public perceiving that you’re feathering your own nest, but I’m not going to be here forever.”

Issues of pay

Knobloch said that even though he is retired, the demands of the council position require him to forego opportunities to make money through investing, and he believes improving the pay would expand the attractiveness of the job.

Council salaries, like those of the mayor, are set by an independent commission. Knobloch said he has not yet talked to the commission about a possible adjustment, but intends to do so in the near future.

Vann isn’t sure boosting pay into the $20,000 range is the answer.

“People who have careers aren’t likely to give them up for a little more money,” she said.

A number of current and former council members said the job could be made less time-consuming, but disagree on how that might be done.

“The job can take as much time as you want to give it,” said Jim Llewellyn, “but it can also be done in five to 15 hours a week.”

The way to reduce the time demands, Llewellyn said, is to prioritize well.

“I got really good at sorting through the reams of email and prioritizing,” he said. “A lot of the email that wasn’t directed to me by name I wouldn’t even open, just as you don’t open all the email you get at home.”

Andy Maron, who worked full time as an attorney in Seattle during his two terms on the council, said he had to forego some of the extra work.

“I couldn’t go to Chamber of Commerce meetings, or volunteer for some of the regional bodies that met during the day,” he said. “The retired members did that, and I think the community was well served by having a mix of working and retired people on the council.”

Lois Curtis, a retiree who is finishing up her second four-year council term, said the present council may be spending too much time on insignificant matters.

“There are some things, like the ethics ordinance and the 48-hour rule (relating to the time in which council committee minutes must be posted) that are more matters of policy,” she said. “Putting them into ordinances is time-consuming, and may not be necessary.”

Others, particularly Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, say the newer members of the council spend too much time trying to “micro-manage” administrative matters that should be left to the staff.

“They are getting involved at a level of detail like trying to tell us what software programs we need,” Kordonowy said.

Some council members say they have no choice.

“After four years, the city has still not gotten its land-use billings straightened out,” Vann said. “I finally had a meeting with everyone involved, and got them talking to each other. I probably spent 150 hours on that project, and it’s not my job.”

Vancil and Pollock say they spend significant time doing research and trying to draft ordinances themselves, something they believe the city staff should do. He faults the mayor.

“If staff delivered product in a timely manner, the council job would be a lot easier,” Pollock said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the fundamental problems of our government stem from management.

“I don’t think the mayor is capable of making the decisions that are necessary to fix that, but a stronger mayor could make our lives easier.”

Knobloch said the time commitment stems from a more active council, but he does not see a return to a more passive approach.

“Inactivity on the part of the council is ceding authority to the executive,” he said. “I don’t think we will be going back.”

Maron said the question is one that deserves public debate.

“I don’t know whether the community wants a council to be involved (in running the city) at that level of detail,” he said.

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The council tonight will consider adopting a 50-page manual that not only tells council members how to do their jobs, but also tells the mayor a little bit about how to do her job, as well.

The former provisions are welcomed by all concerned; the latter are somewhat controversial, but are subject to change.

“This was intended to be an introduction for new council members and for the mayor, to clarify roles and give everyone an idea of how to work together,” said Deborah Vann, principal author of the manual.

For the most part, the manual specifies the responsibilities of a council member, dealing with meetings, committees, and the variety of duties like approving contracts, confirming certain employees appointed by the mayor, the protocol for communications and the conduct of meetings.

“It makes good sense to have all the procedures in one place,” Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said. “Anyone interested in running for council can look at the manual and find out more about the job.”

The manual also addresses issues that have sparked some controversy in the past. It says that the council will receive city-provided laptop computers if requested, that the council will be given two offices at City Hall and that it has the legal authority to hire its own staff.

“Hiring staff is not something we intend to do,” Vann said. “I don’t know whether I think that would be a good idea or a bad idea, but it needs to be in there to clarify what we can do and not do.”

The manual says that the council must confirm the mayor’s appointments to temporary 90-day committees, a provision not part of the present city ordinances. Vann said that provision, like others, is subject to change, and Kordonowy said she would ask that it be deleted.

The mayor said that to the extent the manual changes the relationship between the mayor and the council, it should be the subject of more discussion than a single council workshop. She also regrets what she sees as an undue emphasis on the separation of powers between the council and the mayor.

“We all work with one pool of resources, people and time,” she said. “In our form of government, the way to get things done is to work together. It makes me said that there’s so much emphasis on separation rather than cooperation.”

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