Form of government vote is a community ordeal

With ballots on the way, grassroots campaigners vie for swing votes.

Ballots for the May 19 election were mailed to Bainbridge residences yesterday.

But are islanders convinced the city needs a change in form of government, or will they snub the community effort behind the council-manager initiative?

The Vote Council Manager ‘09 campaign has sent a mass-mailing to over 5,000 island households this week in an attempt to swing voters who are sitting on the fence.

For some behind the council-manager campaign, this vote is the culmination of years of grassroots efforts to bring the issue to the wider island population.

“It’s been a group project, involving good brains and good people,” said Jeff Braff, an organizer for the campaign. “Some of these people have been working on this a long time.”

In October 2008, proponents of the council-manager system had a citizen petition validated by the Kitsap County Auditor’s Office, calling for the city to abandon the mayor-council form of government. The total number of valid signatures on the petition was 1,076.

The challenge for the campaign since then has been to reach out to voters who have either a passing interest or a complete aversion to their government and its structure.

“I’ve talked to people who are totally clueless about all of this,” said Bob Fortner, a local proponent and frequent speaker for the council-manager campaign. “They don’t know the names of the players or even the mayor. We’re assuming that is a good portion of the population out there.”

With votes beginning to be cast, the campaign is still pressing ahead with its trademark neighborhood coffee discussions – intimate gatherings where community members can ask questions about the council-manager form of government.

At such an event Tuesday in the Ferncliff neighborhood, about 15 people gathered to hear Fortner give his views on the council-manager form. Some of those present said they favor any change that will make city government more efficient.

“We’re very effective at slowing things down, except for spending money; in terms of getting things done not a lot has actually happened,” said islander Fred Truitt.

Others were skeptical that the council-manager system will bring about that change.

“I’m not 100 percent convinced,” said a woman who attended Ferncliff meeting. “I can see the benefits, but I have also seen problems with city managers in Pierce County. Tensions can occur between the city manager and the council itself.”

In a Monday debate on the issue, Fortner and David Harrison, a University of Washington professor and founder of the Northwest Policy Center, disagreed over the power wielded by the mayor and the potential for heightened productivity under a council-manager system.

Midway through his speech supporting a council-manager government, Fortner lined up seven bobblehead figurines on the lectern to illustrate how seven council members would provide better representation.

Harrison turned the same bobbleheads toward each other to show the conflict he believed would likely ensue in a council-manager system.

It’s a tension that has been evident for many islanders.

“I am convinced something has to be done,” said Truitt. “I am not sure this is the right thing, but nothing could be worse. I went to one council meeting and it was bizarre. I spent my whole life going to faculty meetings and thought those meetings were the worst disorganized mess, I went to one council meeting, and I said, this is even worse.”

The opposition to the council-manager form, while not organized, has included former mayors and council members who believe the the change in government is either ill-timed or inappropriate for the young city of Bainbridge Island.

The Washington State Municipal Research and Service Center (MRSC) states a few of the problems that communities have highlighted regarding the council-manager form of government.

They state that council-manager system could give too much power to one person, the city manager, who is not accountable to voters. Councils may also leave too much decision-making to the manager, and without an elected mayor, the community could lack leadership.

In Washington, turnover for a council-manager is also comparable to the average term of a mayor. According to the Washington City/County Management Association, the average tenure of a city manager is between five and seven years.

However, MRSC also highlights some of the benefits of the system, such as removing politics from day-to-day business, the ability to hire qualified managers to run the city, and an increase in transparency and information output. Proponents also cite that the manager can be removed at any time by the council, limiting the danger of an abuse of authority.

It is for those reasons that five of the seven current city council members (Kim Brackett, Bill Knobloch, Barry Peters, Kjell Stoknes and Debbie Vancil) have come out in favor of the change.

“What I feel is that the city manager form provides a more direct and less confusing organizational reporting structure, and has a higher probability of providing professional management,” Stoknes said. “It protects staff from political influences which enhances staff moral, and provides a better chance of retaining competent staff.”

If the council-manager form is approved, current city administrator Mark Dombroski likely would become the acting city manager and would be responsible for the daily affairs of the city – as he is now.

Although the council can put out a search for a new city manager, Dombroski’s contract dictates that he would be the interim city manager for at least six months or he would receive a severance of roughly $200,000 ($144,000 annual salary plus benefits).

Fortner hopes the council would conduct a search for a new manager, but has admired Dombroski’s current hold on the city.

“What I see of him from the financial management point impresses me,” Fortner said. “It’s taken a long time for him to become visible in this role, a long time to demonstrate his skill set. But he’s done some remarkable things.”

But just how the community votes this month is anyone’s guess.

The first time islanders took to the polls to decide on their form of government in 1993, the council-manager system was resoundingly defeated 2,887 to 1,802.

With continued grassroots efforts, dissatisfaction with the government and major shifts in city priorities due to the economic situation, council-manager proponents hope this year will be different.

“We really don’t know what will happen,” Fortner said. “We have touched a lot of people in a lot of ways... and that will make it an interesting vote.”

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