Council sets policies to get Utility Advisory Committee back in line

The Bainbridge Island City Council is giving the city’s Utility Advisory Committee a makeover just in time for this year’s Capitol Improvement Plan update.

At Monday’s meeting, the council brought forward policy recommendations to bring the committee back into working order.

“This is a starting place,” said Mayor Anne Blair. “The hope would be is that we would be in a position to bring it forward in a resolution next week.”

The committee — which has not met since January due to low membership — came under criticism several times last year for nonexistent record-keeping and an internal dispute that meetings were not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.

The committee has also stacked up five vacancies out of the seven-member group. Two of those vacancies were previously occupied through January by members with expired terms, while a third was held by Arlene Buetow, the former chairwoman of the committee who resigned from her position the same month.

At Monday’s meeting, the council discussed a draft of recommended policies to add to the committee’s operating guidelines.

The new policies include increasing staff support — a point raised by Buetow when she resigned — and requiring that the advisory body follow the Open Public Meetings Act.

“We felt that we needed as a council to say that staff support was essential and would be available to the UAC during its work,” Blair said.

This staff support, Blair explained, would be placed at the executive and/or department director level.

Committee members will be provided with city email accounts. The UAC found itself under a cloud of criticism last year when it was reported that members were having extended communications between themselves and city council members on emails sent from their private email accounts.

The proposed policies also state that city-utility business must have a recommendation from the UAC before the council takes action on such items.

Additionally, the UAC must follow the Open Public Meetings Act by accepting public comment, maintain meeting minutes and distribute public notices for all of its meetings.

Committee members will also get training about the use and limitations of online communication.

During Monday’s council meeting, Andy Maron, one of the two remaining members on the UAC, offered his view into the committee’s doings over the past year.

“We worked best in the past when we were really caught up with the department heads and when that changed, mostly for budget reasons actually, we weren’t able to do much,” Maron said. “So if we are going to work well with you, that has to happen.”

When asked how these recommendations would sit with staff, City Manager Doug Schulze said that his first concern is exactly that: time commitment.

Two meetings per month would require a big effort on behalf of the staff to plan and attend, Schulze said.

To make the best use of that time, Schulze added that the committee would need to be more efficient with how it asks for staff time.

“In the UAC meetings that I’ve attended, we spent an awful lot of time simply discussing the city’s accounting and reporting,” Schulze said. “That is, what it is, and whether we like it or not, it used a lot of time.”

In the past, Schulze said, staff has spent a lot more time trying to get reports to look the way the UAC wanted them to look then moving forward in making utility-related decisions.

“That’s what our system provides, that’s what staff has to use,” Schulze said. “Creating new stuff just wasn’t a real efficient way to operate.”

While staff support is critical for the committee to function, Maron agreed that staff time is limited.

To be productive, there would need to be open communication between the city and the committee to lay down time schedules, he said.

The council also needs to be clear on the amount and type of advice it will require from the committee, Maron said.

“This gets to the point about, well, really how much advice do you want?” Maron said. “The point here was that you have a citizen group with some expertise … Over time they would know (the details), so you wouldn’t have to.”

An educational component would be necessary to get to that point, but over time there would be less questions and more advising, Maron said.

The additional polices were drafted by council members Dave Ward, who serves as the UAC liaison, Steve Bonkowski, who interviewed applicants to the committee while mayor in 2013, and Blair, who currently serves on the UAC interview team.

The three will continue to revise the current policy recommendations in the next few weeks before the suggestions return to the council for a resolution.

On the list of revisions is to define the type of utility business that must go through the UAC before it reaches the council.

Once a resolution is made, the member application and appointment process will re-open.

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