City puts kibosh on BCC forums

Echoing concerns that the advocacy group Bainbridge Concerned Citizens is an inappropriate sponsor for a candidate forum, the city has revoked permission for the group to sponsor two events in City Hall.

In response, BCC director Gary Tripp said the forums scheduled for Oct. 13 and 20 have been cancelled.

The decision to revoke BCC’s use of City Hall was made by interim city Administrator Lee Walton, who said he believes state law prohibits the use of city property for efforts other than a neutral forum.

The League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce, which also are hosting candidate events in City Hall, meet that “neutral forum” test, Walton said, but BCC does not.

“In my opinion, the Bainbridge Concerned Citizens is a political action organization that does not meet the neutrality standard,” Walton wrote in an email explaining his decision. “I believe that may also be the perception of at least some candidates who would otherwise participate.”

Walton said he was told that BCC was “a registered political action committee,” which Tripp says is not true.

Nevertheless, Walton said, the perception among some candidates of an “advocacy” position was enough to prompt his decision.

In making his determination, Walton said he relied on language from a state statute that prohibits the use of city “facilities” for “the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office.”

But Walton said he did not consider an interpretive regulation, which says the statute “does not prohibit...making facilities available on a nondiscriminatory, equal access basis for political uses,” suggesting that the “neutral forum” restriction applies to city-sponsored activities, but not to making space available to outside political interest groups.

Walton said he would discuss that provision with the city attorney.

BCC had paid a deposit on the City Hall space, and had signed a contract with Bainbridge Island Broadcasting to tape both debates for replay on Channel 6 television. The city will refund the money.

Incumbent council member Michael Pollock, who said he had expressed “concern” to Walton about BCC as a forum host, nevertheless disagreed with the decision to oust the group from City Hall.

“I think the policy should be that the facilities are available equally to everyone for political purposes,” he said.

Walton said the city does not have a formal policy on the use of facilities, and that it needs one.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said she thought “equal access” was the city policy, and that, for example, both Democrats and Republicans could use the chambers for explicitly political events so long as the city did not treat one party differently from the other.

In fact, BCC and the Chamber of Commerce jointly sponsored a candidate forum at City Hall before the primary election for the island’s at-large council seat. The Chamber then dropped out and became co-sponsors of the LWV event, after what Chamber executive director Kevin Dwyer said were “concerns” about alignment with BCC.

After the Chamber dropped its co-sponsorship, BCC invited the environmentally oriented Association of Bainbridge Communities to join as a co-sponsor. That invitation was declined, Tripp said, because of the LWV event.

Walton said the pre-primary forum was allowed to use City Hall because of his impressions at the time about BCC.

“I thought at that time they were just a citizen group,” Walton said. “After that, it was brought to my attention that they were a political action group.”

Walton said two council candidates told him they would not attend a BCC-sponsored forum.

But Pollock denied statements attributed to him by several sources that he would not attend the BCC-sponsored forums.

“I said I thought we had more than enough forums, and that four was quite a few,” Pollock said, referring to the Oct. 14 event and one set for Oct. 22 at Bainbridge High School.

Pollock said he did not believe the BCC’s earlier forum, moderated by former councilman Andy Maron, was unfair.

“I expressed concern about the appearance of fairness,” Pollock said. “Gary Tripp has made a number of statements that convince me BCC is engaged in advocacy. I don’t believe BCC is interested in good government, but in good rhetoric.”

Tripp said that if the city changes its policy, he would consider reinstituting the two forums, but only if all the candidates will show up.

“We’re not going to have empty chairs,” he said.

“That’s not fair to the people who aren’t there, and it isn’t really fair to the people who are.”

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