BI council: Experience v. community access

At a political forum, Bainbridge Island City Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos touted her experience, while challenger Dick Haugan emphasized his connection to the community.

The online-only forum on Zoom was put on by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Kitsap Oct. 18 between the two at-large candidates facing off in the Nov. 7 general election.

Haugan emphasized that no matter how he personally feels about an issue he plans to vote if elected according to what the public wants. To find that out, in the past few months, he has set up an online survey that can be sent out to 4,000 residents to get their opinions. Hytopoulos countered that her experience is what’s really needed as issues facing BI are complex.

Haugan said he first ran for council about 10 years ago, and even though he lost he’s been very involved in city politics. His wife said since he’s spending so much time with it he should run for office to have a stronger platform. Hytopoulos, who has served two terms, said she has run every time because she loves BI. She has experience working with climate change, city code and land use, housing and the increasing regional pressure. “Experience is critical,” she said. During her time in office, she has dealt with various council dynamics, public processes and administrations. As an attorney-mediator who focuses on out-or-court resolutions, she touted her problem-solving skills. Haugan said with his background he would bring much-needed business experience to the council. He said the city is not run like a business so decisions could be better. His opponent has “never gone through that.”

As for how he deals with the public, Haugan said BI does not do a good job of public outreach. That’s why he started Survey Bainbridge. It can provide a “wealth of information.” Hytopoulos said she’s always open to listening to the public at meetings, through emails and who participate in public processes. “It’s critical to bring the community in in every possible way.”

Regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, Hytopoulos said she has no special skills in that area, but she is getting training with other city leaders. She said she looks to the Race Equity Advisory Committee and the city’s new equity officer for advice. They are looking at everything with a “race equity lens in our work as a city.” Haugan said while a lot of attention is going to that issue, he thinks the council and BI are diverse. “People get along. We’re in pretty good shape.”

As for climate change, he said there are so many topics, such as sea level rise, and the city is paying attention to it and trying to take care of them one at a time. Hytopoulos said the city needs to prepare its infrastructure for climate change, such as sea level rise. She said residents and the city need to prepare for a disaster. Water is a big concern to her because of the aquifer situation.

The biggest issue over the next 10 years is affordable housing, she said. People who work here need to be able to live here. Since families can’t afford to live here it’s hurting the schools. She said if local government doesn’t solve the problem the state will step in and do it for us. “The region is suffering from housing pressure,” she said. Haugan said the biggest issue is preserving the character of BI. His surveys have shown that people are complaining about too many things happening. He said city leaders have lots of ideas, but nothing is prioritized, and the community is not being asked what it wants.

Also in his surveys, Haugan said people don’t even know what affordable housing is because it’s not been defined by leaders. People don’t know who it is for and what it will cost. Hytopoulos said she understands the community’s frustration on this because “a lot of mistakes were made.” She said developer bonuses didn’t work, so it’s going to be up to the city to build affordable housing. “The city is the only entity for people who are working like at our restaurants.”

She said to increase affordable housing more multifamily units need to be built in Winslow. Owners of those parcels should be required to create some affordable housing. Haugan said the public needs to be asked if city property should be used and if “building up” is the answer.

As for the Winslow Subarea Plan, Haugan again said while he has his own opinions he wants to “listen to the people.” Hytopoulos said she also wants to hear from the community on where it wants density.

To increase community engagement, Hytopoulos said she’d like to be able to see visually what different properties would look like with different development ideas. Haugan said the city is good at checking off the boxes and setting up work groups, but they are filled with all the same people. “It’s their opinion what should be done.” Haugan again said a “central part of how I think” is to get broader points of view.

As for the Comprehensive Plan and need to balance housing and natural resources, Haugan said the priorities are not clear from the city. Hytopoulos said its goal is to preserve the character of BI. “Development must fit. That must not change.”

To encourage people from sending food to the landfill, Hytopoulos said the city needs to keep it voluntary for residents. Haugan suggested having compost bins at each residence.

In closing statements, Hytopoulos said BI’s ecosystem is fragile so the city needs experienced councilmembers who can work together. Haugan emphasized his business skill set. He also mentioned local government overspending $6 million on Harrison Medical Center, which is being remodeled into a police-court facility. “This would not have happened on my watch,” he said, adding 60 affordable homes could have been built with that money.