It was a most agreeable afternoon.
Until it wasn’t.
Candidates for the Bainbridge Island City Council found few ways to separate themselves from their opponents during a candidates’ forum Wednesday.
All eight council hopefuls on this November’s general election ballot — North Ward candidates Kol Medina and Kevin Fetterly, South Ward candidates Sarah Blossom and Michael Pollock, Central Ward candidates Leslie Schneider and Grayson Wildsmith; and at-large candidates Kirsten Hytopoulos and Anthony Oddo — attended the forum and fielded questions from the audience during the two-hour session. Hosted by the Bainbridge Island Senior Center, the forum attracted a standing-room only audience of more than 80 people.
Limited to one-minute answers, the candidates had little time to differentiate themselves on the complex issues tossed their way.
But at the start, candidates were asked about the biggest challenge they expected to face while on the council.
Oddo said it would be the council’s decision to hire a new city manager after Morgan Smith, now the top staffer at city hall, is expected to depart her post next year.
Managing growth was also a big concern, he said.
It was another line of agreement among the council hopefuls: all eight candidates vowed to uphold the vision and policies of the city’s comprehensive plan, Bainbridge’s guide for restricting growth and development on the island for the next two decades.
Pollock went a bit further, however, and said a community discussion was needed to talk about development and the growth pressure facing the island.
Hytopoulos agreed that the choice of a new city manager was a primary concern, and recalled her previous stint on the council where she was involved in the hiring of two city managers.
“There really is a disconnect at city hall,” Hytopoulos said.
“I don’t want to say it’s this council,” she quickly added. “It’s the city manager who is going to be the only possible way for us to reach into city hall to make sure the culture aligns with the community and the comp plan.”
Wildsmith agreed that growth and managing development was a key concern, and while Schneider also noted the potential change of city manager’s was a high priority, she said she hoped Smith would be open to an offer to stay on as city manager.
Blossom said implementing the city’s comp plan was her biggest priority, and praised City Councilman Ron Peltier for Bainbridge’s adoption of a development moratorium — recently extended for another six months — as a “bold move.”
Climate change, housing, transportation: They were all issues related to the comp plan, Blossom said, and none should be ignored.
Fetterly raised a different issue as the most prominent one facing the city; the lack of roadside improvements and pathways for bicyclists and walkers.
“You’re either in the middle of the road or you’re in the ditch,” he said.
Fetterly said he wanted the council to focus on road safety.
Working to address climate change, Medina said, was his biggest goal.
Solutions should and can begin on Bainbridge, he said.
“I think we can dare. We can dare right here,” Medina said.
Candidates also found themselves mostly in unison when it came to issues such as a downtown parking garage, which found no support, and the prospect of running another tax levy to support roadside improvements. All said they would be willing to go back to voters in another attempt to get a ballot measure passed, with the exception of Fetterly, who said the city should reset its priorities and pay for infrastructure improvements over time, out of the existing city budget.
The candidates were pressed, as well, on the council’s recent 4-3 decision to maximize the number of homes within the city’s Suzuki affordable housing project.
Blossom, who voted in the majority on that controversial decision, said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build low-cost housing, and defended the council’s decision.
“You need density to build affordable housing. That’s just a reality,” she said.
Pollock, however, questioned the legality of devoting public land to affordable housing, and said he thought it was unconstitutional.
Medina, who voted against the plan for affordable housing on the Suzuki property, raised doubts that the city would ever complete the project, and said the land should just be sold, with Bainbridge using the money elsewhere for affordable housing.
Schneider, who was on the other side of the council vote, noted that homes built on the property would be set aside forever as affordable housing, and pushed back on the notion that conveying the property to a nonprofit housing entity would be illegal.
“We will not be moving forward with anything illegal,” she said.
The candidates, except in a few instances, found themselves in agreement for much of the forum.
On the topic of Highway 305 roundabouts, for example, all of the candidates took a pass, noting it was a decision that would ultimately be made by the state Department of Transportation.
And asked for their support of a needs assessment for the senior center, all of the candidates eagerly agreed, with some also voicing support for ideas that included adding a commercial kitchen to the facility, or a second floor.
Likewise, the council’s decision to move forward on a new police station and municipal courthouse wasn’t subject to much second guessing.
Wildsmith recalled working as an intern for the city years ago, and his time spent in the obviously outdated police station.
“It is like stepping into a time machine,” he said of the current station.
Medina said using non-voted bonds to pay $8 million of the $20 million cost for the building was a wise choice, as the debt would be repaid through existing revenue streams, and not a property tax increase.
“I’m not going to ask people to increase their taxes to do that,” he said.
Pollock noted the police station proposal had gone to the voters earlier and was rejected in a landslide. He added that the Suzuki decision should have also gone to the voters, and so should any future proposal for non-motorized infrastructure improvements.
Viewed as a boxing match, it was a bout with no roundhouse blows, no rabbit punches, no knockouts, and plenty of clinches. But, before the final bell, a few quick jabs.
Blossom hit back hard on Pollock’s claim that the council was looking at zoning changes that would greatly increase the number of homes on Bainbridge.
“There is no plan to double or triple our density,” she said.
“I’m bothered by statements like that and the untruths that are out there,” Blossom said, adding that if residents hear things they find concerning, they should press their elected officials for answers.
Medina acknowledged that the candidates “agree on most of the issues,” but asked voters to do their own research on the candidates. Look at their endorsements, he added, talk to their supporters, and decide how the candidates would be prepared to work in the “arranged marriage” of a seven-member council.