Council should go slow on major changes

The new city council’s first meeting this week reminded us a little of those fishing shows on cable television – you knew something was going on, but it was mostly below the surface.

The new city council’s first meeting this week reminded us a little of those fishing shows on cable television – you knew something was going on, but it was mostly below the surface.

First, Christine Nasser, who had been nominated for council chair, instead nominated Michael Pollock for the position. Then, under the generic agenda headings of “council organization” and “council resources,” there was considerable talk about providing the council with the necessary wherewithal to do what the voters elected the council to do.

As day-after inquiries revealed, the issues were linked. Turns out that the the newly elected members of the council believe that the body needs to assume a higher profile, becoming more of a “real” legislature that initiates policy, rather than a body that overseen initiatives coming from elsewhere in City Hall. Pollock was chosen as council chair because he shares those concerns.

We are not wholly unsympathetic. A number of council members have told us that this newspaper is their principal source of information about city government, and while we find that flattering, we’re not sure it’s a hallmark of well-informed governance. And we understand concerns that arise from the council’s limited ability to keep track of matters that are undergoing staff review – when you don’t know on whose desk an item is sitting, it can be easy to suppose that the matter is being ignored.

Having said that, though, we’re a long way from ready to endorse one of the solutions Pollock proposes – staff dedicated to and responsible to the council.

As Mayor Kordonowy observes, it’s far from clear whether state law governing cities like Bainbridge Island permits the legislative body to hire its own employees. And if direct council hiring is not permitted, it’s unclear how an employee of the city – existing or new – could be responsible principally to the council, but be under the legal control of the mayor and city administrator.

Nor are we persuaded that a fundamental change is necessary. The push for change, we note, comes primarily from the newly elected members. While there’s no disputing the legitimacy of their goals – initiating ordinances is one that is mentioned – we think perhaps the new members might try to accomplish their objectives within the existing structure before clamoring for a change.

Talk of office space also raises concerns, because it looks like a step toward a full-time council.

We appreciate the time our council members devote to the job, and can’t help but admire the diligence Bill Knobloch is showing by opening his own office.

But a full-time council is hardly a modest proposition. We note recent news reports about an impending power struggle in Seattle between Mayor Greg Nickels and the city council, and don’t think Bainbridge needs that level of strife. Nor did anybody raise the possibility of making the council full time during the election campaign. Changes of that magnitude ought to be vigorously, thoroughly and publicly debated.

For the nonce, we think, the better course is for the council to decide with some particularity exactly what it wishes to accomplish, explain that to the mayor, then see what can be done using existing resources. Any solution needs to be monitored, and if it doesn’t work, then further adjustments can be made.

As Christine Nasser told us, the council has the resources, but needs to learn how to use them better, as a team. That, we think, should come first. If more fundamental changes are needed, let’s do that after, not before, a public debate.