BI working to get public involved more

Be careful what you wish for.

Bainbridge Island city manager Blair King wants to improve public engagement. He recommended to the City Council Nov. 15 that on its agenda it include time for public input during discussions of each topic. “Put on steroids our commitment to public engagement.”

King said he thought it was important to bring the topic up to the council. “I know that you, my bosses, care very much about engagement with the public,” he said, adding he wants to build trust and public confidence. “It’s difficult to engage the public all over the country.” He added if they are doing their jobs right, the public goes about living its life without even thinking of them.

The council voted 5-1 to have city staff keep studying the issue. King said his next step is to interview members of the many city committees to see if they feel like they are being heard. “Is their service respected?” he asked.

At least two councilmembers said they don’t see a problem. “We’re trying to solve a problem we don’t have,” Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said.

Jon Quitslund agreed, adding better communication between committees and the council is what is needed. He said the committee system doesn’t need to be overhauled “in such an elaborate way,” and he was the only one to vote against the motion.

A lot of time was spent discussing city committees. The presentation shows that few people participate in advisory board meetings. It shows a lack of people applying to boards so the community isn’t being accurately represented. To improve the process, city staff recommends further analysis; consider the types of committees and their roles; develop policies for each committee; consider alternatives like short-term task force or ad hoc committee; and more.

King said the committees should have more public participation. “Maybe the public doesn’t know they are invited,” he said.

Councilmembers Kirsten Hytopoulos and Quitslund said BI has not set up its committees for that purpose. “These committees are workhorses in many cases,” Quitslund said. Hytopoulos added, “I never thought of them for public engagement.” Instead, they are made up of citizen experts who give the council feedback. Quitslund said 10 city codes would need to change if their mission was to change.

Fantroy-Johnson disagreed, saying the committees are the only way the public gets to be involved with the City Council. She said she did not want to “take away the ability for the public to engage. Even if they don’t come we have to give them the opportunity.”

She would like to know, “Are we getting what we need from our committees?”

Hytopoulos agreed. “Is there value that we should be getting that we’re not?” She said the council has to decide what information it wants to get back from committees. “We have to balance the impact on staff with the value of the committees.”

Earlier, King had mentioned the cost of staff time.

Deputy Mayor Clarence Moriwaki mentioned that. “Some of those (committee) meetings go a long time and are not very efficient,” he said, adding he doesn’t want staff who attend those meetings to burn out.

King said some members of different committees say they can’t do the work they need to do because they hold public meetings. If they report to him rather than the council they wouldn’t have to be. “I’m uneasy” about that, he said, especially at a time when he wants to improve transparency and public confidence in city government.