Changes afoot for the council

A new ‘Committee of the Whole’ meets for the first time Friday.

It’s a big meeting inspired by the big city that will tackle the island’s biggest issues.

The City Council will host its first five-hour “Committee of the Whole” meeting Friday, initiating a monthly event to discuss some of Bainbridge’s most pivotal issues.

“On Bainbridge, we’re seeing some major changes to the budget process and to the critical areas (ordinance),” said Councilman Bob Scales, who proposed the new meeting. “It didn’t make sense to just have the Finance or Land Use committees discussing these issues. It made sense to have the whole council engaged and educated on these issues.”

Scales, a senior policy analyst for the city of Seattle, patterned the new “COW” process after similar meetings of the Seattle council. Scales said the meeting will act as an ongoing clearinghouse for important topics and emerging issues.

“It’s a similar structure in Seattle,” Scales said. “Council members are brought along (on issues) from the beginning, making them involved in the whole process.”

Half of Friday’s debut meeting, which begins at 10 a.m. in the council chambers, will flesh out the details and logistics of future COW gatherings. The second half will focus on the city’s priorities, principles and core issues.

The council will also discuss its budget process and year-end revenues. Future meetings could tackle the critical areas ordinance or the Eagle Harbor Anchoring and Mooring Plan.

Councilors likely will not take action at COW meetings, but will attempt to come to consensus on policies before sending them to regular council meetings.

“Hopefully, this will mean a more unified voice from the council,” said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy. “The council’s going in too many different directions. We can’t deliver on our promises and on what the community expects if we’re doing that.”

Kordonowy also expects a more focused council will produce clearer communication and direction for city staff. She said past workshops in which the entire council met at length to hash out policy were very effective.

“You can see that in their work for affordable housing and non-motorized transportation,” she said. “When they get together as a whole, the natural result is they move in a clearer direction.”

Having issues brought to the COW could eliminate the need to to hear those issues in the smaller committee meetings. Some councilors and staff say twice-a-month committee meetings could be cut down to just one.

But that’s a concern for Councilwoman Deborah Vann.

“I’m not sure I want to see the (COW) take the place of committee meetings,” she said. “Some things are harder to do with the larger group, and the smaller groups are less formal and generally easier for citizens to be involved.”

Councilman Bill Knobloch said he hopes the COW will not reduce the flexibility he has as chair of the Public Works Committee to place items on the committee’s agenda.

He also echoed Vann’s concern that citizens may feel less comfortable taking their concerns to the larger COW meetings.

Despite their reservations, both Vann and Knobloch said they’re willing to give the COW a shot.

“The jury’s still out on this thing,” Knobloch said. “But I’m always open to something new – provided it’s a better way to do things.”

Councilman Nezam Tooloee said other councilors shouldn’t be concerned about the COW reducing committee authority.

Tooloee said he’s confident the priorities he’s set as chair of the Finance Committee will hold firm after the COW is implemented.

“If anybody should be concerned about this, I should be concerned,” he said. “But I’m not in the least concerned. It’s a non-issue.”

Tooloee also said encouraging public involvement will depend more on “how the council conducts itself” than on the structure and size of the events.

“We, as a council, need to understand and be comfortable with major policy issues,” he said. “We are more effective and efficient if we’re deciding policy as a whole.”

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