Opinion

Kordonowy for mayor

A couple weeks back, incumbent mayor Darlene Kordonowy and challenger Nezam Tooloee were invited to luncheon with this newspaper’s community board; nothing formal, just a chance to discuss current issues with island leaders representing social services, business, environment and the arts, folks whose observations would in turn help shape the newspaper’s mayoral endorsement.

Kordonowy showed up a half-hour late, by which time Tooloee had captured the room and was holding forth, at length and in exacting detail, on the finer points of some ordinance or other. Better late, we suppose, than never; the tardy incumbent eventually managed to slip in an idea edgewise, and by event’s end, luncheoners were treated to a substantive and thought-provoking exchange between two well-informed candidates.

It seemed representative of the mayoral campaign itself. A surprise entrant, Tooloee wasted no time articulating a smart platform to shoulder aside several marginal candidates and advance through the primary; Kordonowy seemed content to rely on her incumbency to carry her through, only recently finding voice to posit her goals for a second term. Elsewhere in this issue and on their respective websites, the candidates expound on their vision for the next four years.

The question now is: What does Bainbridge Island want from its mayor? Even as the city’s titular boss, a mayor’s power is in many ways limited. A mayor’s initiatives or draft budget may be completely overhauled by council; day-to-day goings-on in City Hall are, ideally, under the purview of department heads and a strong administrator; a mayor holds veto power over most ordinances, but thanks to consensus building by councilors, that power is almost never exercised.

What a mayor does do is set the tone for the city organization, and by extension, the greater community. And more than any mayoral election since the dawn of all-island government, this year’s contest seems to be about personality and style.

Challenger Tooloee has cultivated a following amongst many who’ve felt marginalized by the island’s sometimes homogeneous political culture. Debate over a revised critical areas ordinance has almost defined his tenure as councilman, and he’s been a maverick against the usual “regulate now, ask questions later” approach. Tooloee insists that he would be a decisive mayor, and we suspect that would prove true. His platform suggests that he would take any number of initiatives to the council on issues ranging from city finance to growth management. Outside of City Hall, meanwhile, recent dealings with Washington State Ferries suggest that a hard-nosed mayor might best defend the city’s interests; Tooloee’s sheer relentlessness would no doubt be effective. If you view the mayor as a chief executive officer, he would appear to be the more qualified candidate; Tooloee is an alpha dog par excellence.

But we’re not sure that’s what most islanders want from the person in the corner office. The mayor’s door must be open to all, and Tooloee has yet to demonstrate that he has earned the trust of a broad spectrum of the community. Their respect, probably; their affection, doubtful. This newspaper tends to chide the environmental crowd for beating on Tooloee with such zeal, but it’s fair to say that he can be a polarizing figure. And in a short career in public life – two years ago, nobody had even heard of him – Tooloee hasn’t shown that he can reach out to those with whom he disagrees, rather than just wearing them down. As one constituent famously quipped: “He’s good at backing you into a corner and telling you what a good listener he is.”

Incumbent Kordonowy, by contrast, is known for erring in the other direction, arguably being a “process” person at the expense of decision-making. She has deep and long-standing ties to almost every constituency you can think of – social services, farming, the arts, the environment – and if you name a problem, she can throw a committee at it and have volunteers lining up to serve. Rather than “my way,” she looks for “our way.” If that’s indecisive, the end result is nonetheless usually more palatable to more people.

As to her first term: After weathering 18 months of council strife, Kordonowy acquitted herself decently. City Hall now boasts a top-shelf slate of directors poised to raise the organization to new levels of professionalism. Deals largely brokered by the mayor’s office resulted in preservation of Winslow’s mobile home park and the Serenity House care center, protecting affordable housing for many financially vulnerable residents – again, because people were brought together to work for solutions. And most recently, the excellent Winslow Tomorrow planning process engaged the whole community and moved it toward a common goal, namely, the reimagining of our downtown. Few projects in this community will ever match such standards for participation and achievement.

So what does Bainbridge want from its mayor? In our still-small community, the office still tends to be a reward earned not through skillful campaigning or carefully framed platforms, but through familiarity and trust. It’s no coincidence that each of our past few mayors came to the chair with long and extensive records of public service, through which they earned the support of diverse constituencies. Kordonowy clearly meets that standard.

And in the end, the incumbent’s style seems better suited to an island that values inclusion and process above all else, and accepts decision and results as a happy by-product. Partnering with an effective council – on which Tooloee will be an important voice, who can still work toward his particular goals – Kordonowy should enjoy a fruitful second term, all the while growing personally as a leader. Darlene Kordonowy earns the Review’s endorsement as Bainbridge Island mayor.

Better late, we suppose, than never.

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