Council-manager offers city chance to revive itself | In Our Opinion | April 24

Is the City of Bainbridge Island in a leadership and financial crisis? If so, what should the community do about it?

Registered voters will address the issue during the next three weeks when they cast ballots on a measure that asks whether or not they want to switch from the current mayor-council form of government to the council-manager system.

It’s a perplexing decision because it asks residents to decide whether to embrace a system with which they may be unfamiliar, or to have faith that the next mayor and City Council can work together to provide effective leadership that many believe has been missing in recent years.

So which decision would be best for our island? It’s a question made even more difficult by the fact the city has been forced to cut services, employees and many important projects in order stay afloat financially. Is this the right time to make a change?

When council-manager proponent Dennis Vogt and mayoral candidate Bob Scales were asked that question, their answers were antithetical.

Scales said it was the worst possible time and that it would just be one more problem for the city. Vogt said the timing was perfect because the city has evolved into a special-interest government that caters to well-funded citizens and that a change would provide breathing space for a community that needs to decide what it wants to be.

The primary issues facing the city right now involve a dysfunctional financial structure, though the current city administrator has made some strides in recent months in establishing more accountability in that area, and a growing distrust of leadership because of a perceived lack of transparency in the way the city makes its decisions. There are other problems, but let’s address those.

An obvious strength of the council-manager form is that the person who runs the administration is a trained professional – instead of an amateur as is often the case when an elected official is at the helm – who answers only to the seven-person governing body of the city. When the mayor is an administrator’s boss, there is a greater chance of compromise occurring and the system working more for a chosen few than the community as a whole.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, especially if a mayor operates openly and helps carry out a vision that is established by the community – through its elected representatives.

People who have experience with the council-manager form believe that communities of Bainbridge’s approximate size often have more trust in government because the council must make all of its decisions in a public venue. Ideally, nothing is done behind closed doors.

If there is transparency and open dialogue, they argue, then there is often more involvement by the community because citizens believe it is in their best interest to keep the council – and, subsequently the city manager – on course with the vision the community embraces. Simply put, it encourages citizen involvement.

This community needs to have such a conversation now, and the council-manager form of government provides the best opportunity for it to occur. It also offers a structure that will put the city on a more stable financial course at a critical time in its evolution.

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