Citizens want change at City Hall

A petition for a change in government, signed by more than 1,200 citizens, was submitted Monday to the Bainbridge Island City Clerk.

The City Council could eventually set an election which will allow local voters to decide to keep or scrap the current mayor-council government and replace it with a council-manager system.

In the council-manager form of government, the council hires a manager to run the city and implement policy. This manager is then held accountable by the council, in essence making local government more like a business with board members. Proponents of this style of government believe it increases the transparency and efficiency of the city. Currently, about 19 percent of all cities in Washington State have adopted the council-manager form of government.

The petition, spearheaded by Dennis Vogt and the Bainbridge Island Institute, comes at a time when there’s a focus on the mayor and the city in the preparation of the city’s 2009 budget. City finances and expenditures are likely to be a key issue in deciding which form of government Bainbridge adopts, Vogt said.

“The ball is in the city’s court,” Vogt said. “We will be able to engage in a community-wide conversation in preparation for our vote. We will have opportunity to gain some insight on the best form of government by observing the quality of the city’s end-of-year 2009 budget process.”

The submission of the petition could make for an awkward voting arrangement. Since the petition didn’t meet the Aug. 12 cut-off for this November’s ballot, it could go before voters next November – the same time islanders will vote for a new mayor. The legal outcome of that situation, a newly elected mayor and a government that has no mayor, is uncertain.

In the opinion of the State Attorney General, a proposition to change government may only be voted upon at the next general election occurring in an odd-numbered year (November 2009). The opinion isn’t a formal decision on the matter and a special election could be arranged by the city council for February 2009.

As council chair, Bill Knobloch will ask the council to endorse putting the proposal on a ballot – endorsing the bill allows the issue to be decided by voters. It is not a reflection of council attitudes on replacing the mayor-council form of government. Once it is endorsed a date can be set for either November or February of 2009. It is an issue, Knobloch said, that island residents shouldn’t take lightly.

“A very serious question has arisen if a mayor-council form of government is what serves this city best,” Knobloch said. “Prior to that I didn’t have an opinion, now I wonder whether Bainbridge Island may need a more directly controlled government and having a city manager might be the best way.”

When asked for a comment on the petition, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said she understood the right for voters to decide on their form of government, but that a vigorous debate would be needed on the merits and shortcomings of both systems.

“In my opinion at this point, I don’t think it is that important,” Kordonowy said. “But we need to be sure that all the facts on all sides of the issues are being given due consideration, and then I trust the community to make the best decision.”

By state law, citizens who are registered voters on Bainbridge Island can petition the island’s City Council to place the change of government option on an all-island ballot. For the petition to be valid, 967 valid hand written signatures (10 percent of voters from the most recent general election) will be required.

The petition submitted on Monday will now be passed on to the Kitsap County auditor for review of the validity of the signatures. When at least 967 signatures are deemed valid, the auditor must issue a certificate of sufficiency to the city. The council then has the responsibility to set the matter for election and choose the election date.

“I think it’s timely,” Knobloch said. “And it’s time for the community to step up and tell us what they want. If the council endorses putting it on the ballot – it means they want an answer.”

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