Form of government is an issue new and old on Bainbridge

Former City Council member Andy Maron (standing) at a 1991 meeting to discuss the annexation of Bainbridge Island.  - Review Archive Photo
Former City Council member Andy Maron (standing) at a 1991 meeting to discuss the annexation of Bainbridge Island.
— image credit: Review Archive Photo

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Past change-of-government vote gives perspective on upcoming initiative.

On May 18, 1993, islanders took to the polls to decide what form of government would serve the newly incorporated city of Bainbridge Island.

That day, the initiative to adopt the council-manager system was resoundingly defeated 2,887 to 1,802.

After the loss, Lois Andrus, then a supporter of the council-manager system and chair of the Bainbridge League of Women Voters, said the issue would likely rise again “when something ugly happens.”

Today, that time seems to have arrived.

“It was a pretty accurate prediction that it would come up again,” Andrus said this week. “But I wonder why this issue is coming up at this time.”

There are many parallels between the issues voters faced back in 1993 and those that islanders will have to examine this year.

But unlike today’s initiative, which was brought forward by a citizen petition, the last vote was initiated by the Bainbridge City Council. It was part of a pledge to reexamine the city’s form of government if the entire island were incorporated as one city.

“There was no campaign back then for or against it,” said Andy Maron, a City Council member during the 1993 vote. “It was a bit of a promise of the new all-island city that we ought to look at it.”

The form-of-government vote was directly tied to the annexation of the island, a decision that divided islanders. With more than 80 percent voter turnout, 136 ballots ultimately swung the decision in favor of all-island incorporation.

According to Maron, that division was one of the reasons for low voter turnout and lack of support for the council-manager measure.

“It failed for two reasons,” Maron said. “One, people had seen enough change in government structure that they didn’t want to see that much drastic change, and two, there hadn’t been any problems that had surfaced to push people to that change.”

Maron, one of the two new council members to join the government after incorporation, spoke in favor of the council-manager system at the time. He still supports the system to this day.

“Back then I said, we all get along fine now, we’re working together really well now, but one day there is likely to be a problem and a council-manager form is more able to deal with those conflicts,” he said. “I still am in favor of the change, not so much because of recent histories between the council and mayor; I think it is a better form for a medium sized city.”

Much of the focus on the 2009 vote will undoubtedly zero in on the functionality of the current city government, and whether the council-manager or mayor-council form will grease the bearings of governance.

To Sam Granato, the mayor of Bainbridge Island in 1993, it’s not about changing the form of government, but fixing the current system.

“The problem in the city, in my view, is for too long we’ve had a series of weak mayors, and this is a strong mayor form of government,” Granato said. “The council has usurped a lot of influence and power that the mayor could exert to balance the council.”

Granato believes the biggest hurdles the current island government faces are transparency and delay, and that those problems are not likely to change under a new form of governance.

“Trust is the biggest issue, that people have trust in the council and the mayor,” he said. “They need to readdress the balance between the two positions. The other problem is, we stretch issues much too long; for eight years we’ve had a government of process instead of decision-making.”

Those who remember the vote also contend that Granato enjoyed broad support, which helped defeat the measure.

“At the time, the mayor was pretty popular and the groundswell to change it was too unpredictable,” said James Docter, currently a judge in Bremerton who was on the Bainbridge City Council in 1993. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, and it was more of a matter of, if it wasn’t broken, why fix it? We didn’t want to go down that road.”

Supporters of the change contend that the situation is different today.

Active lobbying groups for the council-manager switch are beginning to take root. A council split 4-3 on most financial decisions and a two-term mayor currently sitting in office also may influence voters.

Dwight Sutton, who served as mayor from 1997 through 2001, remembers the 1993 vote and raised the issue again in 1999, although the council at the time did not want to consider the council-manager question.

Sutton said that voters should consider carefully what they expect a new form of government to look like.

“It’s not the case of which is the better form, it’s the dynamic of what you have,” Sutton said. “The executive and legislative bodies both have their peculiarities, which could constrain how they would perform. A polarization or a split wouldn’t go away with a council-manager form.”

The only one who seems to have had changed a change of heart on the subject is Andrus. Once a staunch council-manager supporter, she now sits firmly on the fence.

“My question is, what kind of a climate are we going to create? Is it going to be a hostile atmosphere at City Hall? That isn’t the public service format that bodes well for the community,” she said. “The few meetings I have gone to recently there have been a lot of flashing knives; it looks like that is the name of the game, and I don’t know how we got to that point.”

Although she hasn’t decided how she will vote, Andrus has come to the conclusion that it is the people, not the system, that make a government effective.

“There is no reason we couldn’t have a terrific government, but we keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said. “At this point, I’m saying, either (form) will work; it all depends on the character of people in government and the milieu they find themselves in.”

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