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Voters have spoken, and they demand to be heard | In Our Opinion, May 22
A whopping 69 percent of Bainbridge Island’s voters have marked a ballot saying they want a new government. In a way, the vote was a shot in the dark: “Hello, hello, is there anybody in there? Anybody listening? Please, let us in.”
The day after the election, eight members of the council-manager campaign committee met with six of the seven City Council members and Mark Dombroski, the current city administrator who soon will become the city manager. The purpose was to relay the rather scathing message that the committee received from islanders during the many small-group and one-on-one meetings they held over several months.
The committee decided the post-election meeting with city officials should be held privately because it feared that the necessary open dialogue would be difficult in a public setting. The council members agreed, and met three at a time with the committee members. A member of the Review attended one of the meetings.
Here are some of the objections offered by citizens to members of the campaign committee:
– A very unhappy, frustrated, angry constituency feels estranged from its city government. Generally, that’s why they voted “yes,” rather than because they think the council-manager system will automatically solve the city’s many problems.
– The focal point of their exasperations is the administration and mayor, but they are also dissatisfied with the council’s performance.
– A common question: “Will the council be able to step up to the challenge?”
– Generally, citizens are not apathetic; they care and they want to do something about it, but they’ve been excluded from participating in a meaningful way.
– City government is staff-driven to the degree that many citizens refuse to engage in it.
– The city is profoundly dysfunctional and not responsive to its citizens’ needs.
– The city has been living beyond its means for too long.
All of which has left us with a government reeling from a plethora of problems it has brought on itself, including a horrific financial situation that cannot be blamed on the current economic downturn. That’s the tendency of some council members, but the fact that the city is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy is because it has squandered its reserves over time.
But the worst part is the city’s pattern in recent years of turning it’s back on too many of its citizens – other than those it deemed useful. This has bred deep distrust, caused, in part, by a heaping amount of aloofness coming from those in charge.
The council must immediately reach out to the community to make an effort to regain the trust it needs to govern effectively. How? That’s up to the council, but whether it’s through a series of informal meetings and/or a dramatic change in the closed atmosphere at its formal meetings, it better do it earnestly and quickly.
The council is seriously under the gun, beginning with the need to establish a working relationship with Dombroski while switching to an unfamiliar form of government. But there is a way out of the dilemma.
Be honest, approachable and decisive. And seek help from those who care.