Of problems and their solutions

C. Northcote Parkinson earned modest fame with his axiom that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” While generally used to explain bureaucracies, we might attempt to apply it to other spheres of public service as well.

Elsewhere in this edition, Bainbridge Island City Council members ruminate on the demands – some would argue, the evolution – of local elected office. Our inquiries were piqued by a recent council contemplation of how to get younger citizens to run for office. Implicit is the notion that, given the amount of work that comes with council service, only retirees, those of independent means, or folks from households with a second breadwinner can afford to serve. Other working professionals are said to be excluded by virtue of their career and other personal demands.

Is more expected of today’s council members, or do they expect more of themselves? Asked another way, the question might be whether there are really are more problems in search of solutions, or whether this council simply has more solutions.

Ample evidence exists to support either argument. The number of ordinances introduced – an extremely rough measure of output, given the many aspects of council work – has fluctuated over the last decade, but has remained stable at 53 per year for the past three years. (By comparison, the 1999 council floated 71 ordinances, the 1997 council just 39). If “output” isn’t increasing, is the council tackling tougher problems, or are the problems themselves taking more time?

There does seem to be an urge to tinker, both by council and city staff. Much time and effort has been thrown at required updates to our various long-range plans. But do we really need zero-based reviews, or might we not simply determine whether existing plans have major flaws, and if not, call it good?

The mayor also suggests that this council feels a need to involve itself in administrative matters that ought to be left to the mayor and career management. But the fact that some candidates ran and won on a platform of “improving city services” suggests that island citizens shared a perception that Something Must Be Done. It’s hard to fault council people for trying to do what they promised.

Council demographics do seem to be changing. The first post-annexation council had four working professionals – two attorneys, a financial manager and an environmental planner. But even then, the group often relied on its retired members for the daytime work. And we’re not sure changes since then have to do with the demands of the council job, or the demands of careers in an increasingly difficult economy.

One suggestion has been higher pay for the council. But aside from the financial implications – which could also involve office space, equipment and staff support – we wonder whether a $20,000 annual stipend would induce many folks to take four years out of a high-paying career.

Looking at our city council, our friend Parkinson might have asked: Which comes first – the problem, or the desire to fix something? And our community may have to consider how much “fixing” it wants.

We generally query council hopefuls on their experience and qualifications, their views on the issues of the day. As candidates begin lining up for the four council seats that will be up this fall, voters may also want to ask candidates how they hope to define the job itself.

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