A push for diversity, or political trickery in disguise?

After members of the Bainbridge Island City Council sought to appoint Ashley Matthews to the planning commission, city officials and members of the Race Equity Task Force have raised their concerns surrounding the move, with some calling it an attempt to exploit nationwide calls for equity and diversity in government, as a means of blocking the council’s recommended appointee for political reasons.

Last week the Bainbridge City Council voted 4-3 to appoint Sarah Blossom to the planning commission’s Position 2 seat. The decision followed a contentious debate after Councilmember Rasham Nassar suggested at a June 23 council meeting that instead of Blossom, the council appoint Matthews, a former city council candidate, to the commission. While she had not submitted an application for the seat on the commission, Nassar argued that Matthews — a person of color — would bring a necessary element of diversity to the position.

Following the June 23 meeting, the recommendation to appoint Matthews was brought before the Race Equity Task Force. Addressing the issue at the task force’s June 25 meeting, Brenda Fantroy-Johnson — who serves in the Position 1 seat — didn’t mince any words in voicing her contempt for the issue at hand.

“This issue should be handled with the city council,” Fantroy-Johnson said. “We’re following age-old practices of racism and institutionalized racism where we pit one group against the other.”

“This has no business in the Race Equity Task Force,” she continued. “The city council promoted somebody to … this position and everybody voted on it, and whatever process they had, they did it.”

“What you’re saying is ‘OK, now the Race Equity Task Force is essential, we need to make a decision.’ No, no we don’t. When you figure out what you’re going to do with this issue, we would love to be a part of the process, we would love to read who you have listed for recommendations so that we can recommend somebody. But you can’t bring us in at the end of this process when there’s this much controversy, it smacks to me of institutionalized racism and I don’t like it, I don’t like the way it feels.”

“You’re wrapping it up by saying, ‘I’m doing such a good thing for you.’ You’re not. It’s patronizing. It’s something that I’ve been through all my life and I’m passionate about it and I don’t like it.”

“It really, really is out of order.”

What Nassar argued was a chance to appoint a candidate in order to foster a more diverse local government has also been regarded by fellow Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos as an exploitative push to block the appointment of Blossom for political reasons, while masquerading under the auspices of racial equity.

According to Hytopoulos, when the recommendation was made to appoint Blossom to the planning commission, she saw an “incredible number of attacks on the council members who were bringing [Blossom] forward.”

“The two who were forcibly pushing [Matthews] forward … were Michael Pollock and Rasham [Nassar],” Hytopoulos said. “The same people who were very opposed to Sarah [Blossom].”

Hytopoulos maintains that the move to place Matthews in the seat was an attempt to leverage the city’s desire for a diverse government in order to block the appointment of Blossom to the planning commission; a move, she says, which served to undermine the council’s established processes.

“It’s destructive to the council, it’s destructive to the work of the Race Equity Task Force,” Hytopoulos said. “It’s part of a larger issue of bullying that is going on on our city council.”

Following her appointment to the planning commission, Blossom called the push to block her appointment a “planned attack.”

“It wasn’t completely unexpected, but I think the extent of it surprised me,” Blossom said. “I think that Ms. Matthews sincerely wanted to be on the planning commission. I don’t think she had anything to do with what was happening on the side, and I think she was very sincere.”

According to Blossom, the opportunity to appoint Matthews gave Pollock and Nassar, “another argument against me, another reason not to appoint me.”

Councilmember Michael Pollock was indeed outspoken in his opposition to Blossom’s appointment at the June 30 meeting, engaging in a lengthy tirade that drew rebukes from others on the council. Pollock said he was “stunned” that most of the council seemed to be leaning away from appointing Matthews immediately.

“I felt like we had a historic moment on our hands,” he said, later adding “this feels like an example of systemic racism.” Pollock also said many of his fellow council members were being “hypocritical,” and “disgusting.”

At the meeting, Councilmember Christy Carr said she was “deeply offended” by Pollock’s remarks. “What you just said to your colleagues is unacceptable,” Carr said.

Perhaps the most impassioned admonishment of Pollock’s comments at the meeting came from Councilmember Joe Deets.

“You’re being a hypocrite here Michael,” Deets said before referencing Pollock’s lack of support for Matthews as a council candidate during a May 5 vote to fill the seat vacated by Matt Tirman in February. Of Pollock’s top three choices to fill the seat, Matthews’ name was not on the list. In similar fashion, Nassar, one of Matthews’ most vocal proponents — the one who first proposed appointing her in Blossom’s stead — also failed to show any support during the May 5 meeting, instead casting her three votes for Lisa Neal, Jim Halbrook and Christy Carr.

“Michael, you’re out of order,” Deets continued. “You threw a lot of language out here, sir. So what do you expect? Especially when you see how you actually voted and what you’re saying now, my god.”

“This is about as hypocritical as anyone can be,” he added.

“You’ve got to live with that, Councilman Pollock.”

In an unrelated development at the June 30 council meeting, Don Doman resigned from the Position 3 spot, seemingly opening the opportunity to place both Matthews and Blossom on the commission.

When asked whether she would continue her vehement support of Matthews to the planning commission in order to take Doman’s seat, Nassar appeared to take a different tone.

“If Ms. Matthews applied and she was determined to be the most suitable for the position, her qualifications were consistent with the required qualifications in our code, then I would be happy to continue my support and recommendation for Ms. Matthews on the Planning Commission.”