City Council retreat brings accusations, political maneuvering

The first council gathering of 2009 starts out positive but ends bitterly.

The first Bainbridge Island City Council meeting of 2009 was labeled a "retreat" and was supposed to set a united, positive spin for the coming year.

By the end of the Thursday meeting, however, veiled allegations and disputes cast a shadow on the progress made towards reconciling a split council.

The majority of the retreat went smoothly, with council members acknowledging they faced a steep climb to find unity after a 2008 that was largely divided on major issues of public works projects and funding hurdles.

Council members were unanimous in their support of reworking the city's financial statements, and reexamining their procedural structure.

"We reconfirmed the idea to work collaboratively, to work with city administration. Everyone agreed it would be all in our best interests and that we have accurate, timely information," council member Chris Snow said. "We had some good cross fertilization, but there are some fissures between us on a couple of issues and the larger one of the city's financial circumstances. I think the one thing we got hung up on was internal organization of the council."

Council members began to hit arguments when discussing issues that divided them in 2008.

Barry Peters brought up the 4-3 split within the council, calling that notion a misconception. He also expressed that council members, even if they lost a vote, should set a united stance behind democratic principles.

"The correct statement is that a (resolution) was passed by the council," Peters said. "The incorrect statement is that it was passed by a 4-3 vote."

"That's how we operated in 2006 and 2007," Kjell Stoknes said. "The tug-of-war stopped after votes were made. In this year the tug-of-war continues after council votes."

But each time the issue of the 4-3 split was mentioned, there was considerable maneuvering on both sides to deflect blame.

Peters and Stoknes both claimed that some council members were not adhering to the principles of democracy, while Bill Knobloch at times referred to the bloc-of-four as "the tyranny of the majority," claiming decisions were already made before council votes were taken.

The discussion became more heated when the issue of committee appointments arose. Kjell Stoknes, who will likely become the council's new chairman this Wednesday, will decide the make-up of the three-member committees.

Knobloch, the outgoing council chairman, was furious that he would not be allowed to sit on the Public Works Committee, which will work with staff on recommendations to the council regarding major public projects in 2009.

"To be quite candid," Stoknes said, "Winslow Way is the largest program coming through, and the waste-water treatment plant, and it was difficult for me to consider putting you (Knobloch) and Kim (Brackett, who was not at the retreat) both on Public Works when I observed you so strongly being opposed to Winslow Way," Stoknes said. "It is a project that has $6 million committed to it of outside money, the rest will be out of the utility funds. I have heard comments made that this is a project that should be delayed."

(Approval of funding for the Winslow Way project and the waste-water treatment plant was a part of the council-approved 2009 budget and the Capital Facilities Plan).

"So this is a political decision?" Knobloch replied.

"It's a work program decision," Stoknes said. “Let me be real candid with you. I don't believe you comprehend, when a majority of the council makes a decision to do something, that becomes city policy. When you drag an anchor behind you opposing that city policy, that's a statement to me that you are going to continue to oppose that project ongoing. Why would I conclude any differently?"

Stoknes, Peters and Hilary Franz said the committees were being decided based on which members would work proactively with city staff to accomplish its ambitious Winslow Way work plan.

As the discussion continued, council members accused each other of using covert channels to either advance or scuttle ongoing projects.

Knobloch mentioned that some members had private meetings with the mayor, which seemed to imply a circumventing of council authority. They also pointed out that some members had expressed publicly that certain projects and policies would be enacted because of four secured votes on the council.

Franz said there had been veiled issues relating to private phone calls by unnamed council members to agency representatives at the state level. She said the phone calls were aimed at derailing grants the city had received for Winslow Way.

"Everyone here is frustrated, and if we're going to stop it we need to be really up front with what we have heard and what we have seen, and what everyone all the way down to Olympia has seen," Franz said. "I was at an event the other night... I can't go anywhere at the state level without hearing about things that are happening at a council level. "We need to be frank about how we are really operating, each and every one of us."

Franz wouldn't comment specifically about the allegations, saying that those issues may come to light in the future. Until then, she said, she would focus only on issues and not individuals.

"It's called behavior," Knobloch countered. "I see what goes on TV, whispering and getting up and not paying attention. We better start thinking. Are we going to have another 4-3 year or are we going to make an effort to work together... this is not the way to start."

At one point, Vancil questioned Stoknes on what priorities he was setting for 2009 as the incoming council chairman.

"I think what I have done is prioritized the city work program over reconciling the council, at least in the appointments," Stoknes said.

He continued to voice his concerns that the ongoing rift in the council was destroying the city's ability to function.

"I can tell you this council is ripping the city apart. We have a tug of war on this major issue, particularly Winslow Way, with 4-3 tugging. We take a vote and the official city policy became, 'Let's move ahead with Winslow Way,' but the tug-of-war goes on, and it's breaking the city apart. It's making us inefficient and it's a stupid way to have an organization operate. ...We have to find a way to agree that democracy works based on the majority and if you can't accept it..."

Although the mayor was not present during the committee discussion, she later said she had spoken with Stoknes before the retreat about the appointments.

"I thought it was great that Kjell wanted my input. Previously, administration didn't have any input, I thought it was admirable reaching out on his part," she said. "I did have concerns about if (Knobloch) was on the committee about who else would be working with him. There was a time he was concerned about Winslow Way and revenue bonds for the waste water treatment plant and if Kim Brackett has voted together with Bill on those issues when they come before council. (I wanted to know) can two council members on a committee prevent or stop agenda items (relating to Winslow Way and the wastewater treatment plant) from moving forward?"

Based on council procedures, the mayor said, the appointment of Knobloch and Brackett to the same committee wouldn't prevent issues relating to major projects from coming before the full city council, which resolved her only point of concern.

Towards the end of the discussion on the committees, Knobloch declared the meeting over and walked out.

The council will reconvene Wednesday for the first 2009 council meeting.

Audio of the retreat can be heard on the city's Website at:

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