Bainbridge council struggles with postponing policy work amid crisis

Bainbridge Island City Manager Morgan Smith promised a “hard conversation” during last week’s council meeting.

And she got one.

With officials at city hall nearly consumed by the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith turned to the council to stress that councilmembers — like elected officials at other agencies across Kitsap County and beyond — would have to dial back expectations of what can be accomplished because the coronavirus response has become the clear and top priority.

But while Smith suggested fewer council meetings, and a stripped-down scope for the ones that would be held, she found some on the council reluctant to set aside their future policy plans for a sole focus on the coronavirus crisis.

The next six weeks, Smith said, was a critical span for the city.

And even if circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 crisis change and current constraints loosen, Smith said the council should not expect a quick turnaround back to business as usual by city hall.

“It’s not a light switch. We won’t be able to just come back to you from one day to the next, pivot from what’s really an extreme set of process changes to the work done the way we typically do it,” she said.

That means council meetings, and what’s done at them, must change.

Smith said council meetings should be straightforward affairs that address just the most essential business needs; responding to COVID-19 outbreak, and paying the city’s bills.

She recommended meeting twice over the next six weeks — April 14 and April 28 — and forgoing council discussion of policy topics unrelated to the current emergency during that time. Also, the meetings would be closed to the public. (Public comment could be done through email, Smith noted.)

Smith also said the city was ready to move to a call-in format.

The council rejected that approach, however.

“I would like to meet every week, if we can,” said Councilman Joe Deets.

He recalled a conversation with a resident who was distraught over the city’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I feel there is great value in having us here,” he said.

Deets said he also wanted to move ahead on the city’s climate change action plan, and said the climate change committee was “on the cusp” of presenting the plan.

The committee had been expected to present the plan’s targeted goals and a high-level view at the council’s meeting the week before, which was ultimately canceled.

It’s been in the works for two years, he added.

“Let’s have the conversation. People can watch it on video. Because I just don’t want to kick this down the can six weeks. I really do not,” Deets said. “I’ll fight tooth and nail over that.”

Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos supported the city manager’s recommendation for just two meetings in April, and reminded her fellow councilmembers that there were other groups, such as the planning commission, that also had issues important to them they’d like the council to take up sooner rather than later.

“I don’t think we can cherry pick issues,” Hytopoulos.

It’s not just about the staff time to get prepare for meetings, she added, but also the staff time it takes to conduct a council meeting.

That’s time that’s taken away from other work that needs to be done, Hytopoulos said.

“I would support going silent on policy issues, completely, in April,” she said.

Councilman Michael Pollock disagreed, and said they should try to continue on as normal as possible.

“Our community has faced a number of challenges. I was actually on the council when 9/11 hit and we managed to keep the government open and running,” Pollock said.

“There’s been earthquakes. We’ve had world wars,” he added.

Pollock said he was concerned about shutting down democratic process during a crisis.

He also noted climate change is an issue “that’s not going away,” and again noted it was important to display a sense of normalcy.

Pollock said it was important to show they could maintain a functional democracy “even with there’s a bit of a crisis at hand.”

But Mayor Leslie Schneider noted how Gov. Jay Inslee had to step in and tamp down on otherwise normal behavior, “because people weren’t taking the hint.”

“I think normal behavior is exactly what we’re trying to avoid right now,” Schneider said.

Folks who might want to be involved in the council’s formation of policy could be excluded, she added, because they were more concerned about protecting their own lives, as well as adhering to the governor’s order on staying home.

“These are not normal times. We can’t have normal behavior,” she said.

Schneider also supported the recommendation of just two meetings.

“It is a burden on the organization,” Smith said.

The city manager reminded the council that tough choices were already being made every day at city hall.

“And I guess part of the dread you’re hearing from me is: I’m operating during the day, the day job here, where in the last couple of days where our fire chief made a decision where he and his deputy chief are never in the same room together.

“That’s the kind of extreme choices we’re making.”

“I understand the urgency. I understand the significance of these issues,” Smith said. “But I think you have to appreciate that our context every day is that, we’re setting aside things that matter to this organization. Legal decisions. Policy decisions. HR aspects.

“We just can’t do that right now, we have to do this,” she said of the city’s COVID-19 response.

Even so, Pollock continued to press to keep climate change on the council’s immediate agenda.

“I think that there are some important issues, climate change among them, that we shouldn’t be putting off,” Pollock said.

“Climate change isn’t killing people in a dramatic fashion the way a virus is. But it’s an emergency. It’s here. And I just really don’t think, on that issue, that we should be delaying and putting things off,” he added.

On the question to continue to with weekly council meetings — but with agendas restricted to COVID-19 briefings, business continuity items, and decisions on the city’s emergency response — the council voted 4-2, with Pollock and Councilwoman Rasham Nassar voting no.

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