Councilwoman Blossom finished term with explosive and emotional plea

It wasn’t a farewell filled with flattery or a parting plumped by her own personal praise.

Instead, Bainbridge Councilwoman Sarah Blossom put an explosive exclamation point on her upcoming exit from the council dais.

Blossom is leaving the council at the end of December after two terms and eight years of service to the city. And at the council’s last meeting of the year, she took to the lectern usually reserved for members of the public to give her last speech.

But unlike the traditional “look-at-all-my-accomplishments” address typically favored by departing politicians, Blossom instead delivered a sensitive but strongly worded warning to her fellow councilmembers.

The message: face reality on opposition to the city’s Suzuki project, the plan to take 14 acres of city-owned land and develop part of it into affordable housing.

“I know I’m supposed to sit up here and say a whole bunch of thank-you’s, and be sentimental,” Blossom said, quickly announcing she had other plans.

“I know I’m supposed to sit up here and say a whole bunch of thank-you’s, and be sentimental,” Blossom said, quickly announcing she had other plans.

Straight talk expressed

What followed, at times emotional, were words of advice that had been keeping her up at night the past few weeks.

Before she began to read prepared remarks, Blossom pulled out a handful of tissues.

“This is going to be difficult for me; probably going to be emotional … but I feel compelled to speak. So here I go.”

Facing her six colleagues on the council, Blossom noted that the next time she stood at the public-comment lectern she’d be limited to three minutes.

Now, with no time limit, she told the council she wanted to talk about the Suzuki project, which has been mired in public controversy and repeated delays from councils both past and present.

“It’s been almost 13 years since the idea of an affordable housing community at Suzuki was proposed, and almost six years since the city council picked the idea up again,” Blossom said.

“I want to be very clear that I’m not trying to shame anybody,” she quickly added. “I know some people will think that, but I’m not. I just want to talk about the reality of what’s going on here. And if anyone feels ashamed, insulted or upset because of what I say, then perhaps it’s time for a little introspection.”

Indeed, objections to the Suzuki development have run the gamut; from how much of the forested property would be preserved; which developer the city would hire to build out the land; which development plans proposed were best; the density of the development; how much the city should spend on the project; the mix of affordable homes with market-rate homes; as well as the income levels of those who would live in the new neighborhood. There have also been continuing concerns from those worried about more traffic in the neighborhood and other impacts from additional development at the edge of Winslow.

“When we talk about affordable housing, we distance ourselves from it by talking about various levels of income. And I’d like us to stop doing that,” Blossom continued.

“I would like us to stop thinking that we are doing this to serve nameless, faceless members of our community — past, present or future — because I think that makes it too easy to continue to not do anything.”

Faces with names

“I want to share with you some of the people I think about it when we are talking about percentages of median income. I think about the people who drilled your well, installed your drain field and framed your home. I think about the people who installed our infrastructure, so we have water systems, sewer systems, roads and power.

“I think about the people who literally built Bainbridge and can’t live here,” she said.

That includes workers in the city’s planning department, Blossom said, employees who process permits for someone’s dream home. And the public works employees “out in the rain and snow, keeping our roads safe.”

“I think about the teacher that took a painfully shy and anxious child and transformed her into the star of her first play. I think about the retiree-turned-coach who keeps a calm, positive outlook no matter how high the error count goes, or how often the umpires make a bad call, who leads by example and demonstrates that teamwork and good sportsmanship are more important than titles.

“I think about my friend, who through no fault of her own, isn’t physically capable of working anymore and has no family, but is able to survive here because of Island Volunteer Caregivers, Helpline House and Housing Resources Bainbridge. I worry about what would happen to her if she had to leave this island and that support system behind.

“I think about the young officer who comes across a senior on Paint Night, with a paint brush in one hand and a paint can in the other, and instead of scolding her and shooing her away, he tells her that whatever she paints, to make it big, so it lasts a long time.”

At times, it was too much, emotionally, for Blossom to continue. She took several long moments to finish those passages, personal to her, she said later, because they were based on actual events that she or her family has experienced.

“I think about the baristas at the Safeway Starbucks, who know your drink by heart, and greet you with an extra kind and sympathetic smile because they know that one of your loved ones is ill.

“I think about the firefighters, paramedics and EMTs that pull your broken body out of your crumpled car, or take some extra time to listen to your mother share memories after your grandmother has passed away.

“These people are not points on an affordability spectrum — they are members of our community who touch our lives. And when it takes us more than five years to get a single project off the ground, what we are telling them is that they aren’t important enough for us to deal with the discomfort that comes with change.”

Walk the talk

Blossom called out the duplicity of so many words versus so little action.

“We can say that we support affordable housing until we’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t matter because what we are showing people through our inaction is that it’s not as important as we claim.

“Who would ever think that in a left-leaning progressive, inclusive community like we proclaim to be, that so much time and energy would be spent fighting an affordable housing community.”

“I hope that those of you who have supported Suzuki will continue to do so.

“It’s going to take a lot of persistence and it won’t be easy. You know that,” Blossom added. “There will be malicious cartoons and memes posted to Facebook, and emails that keep you up at night, feeling a whole host of emotions; confusion, sadness, anger.”

Blossom, the council’s most senior veteran, recalled a quote she’d recently read that said the way to “not solve a crisis is to avoid all complaints.”

“There will not be a middle-aged fan club for you to call upon to come and sing your praises when your egos are bruised, but please don’t let that dissuade you,” she told her fellow councilmembers.

“Those who oppose Suzuki have had the council engaged in a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole that has dominated this effort for the last few years.

“You need to disengage from that game.”

There’s another game at play, she said: “the delay game.”

“It is real, and it is in overdrive,” Blossom said, adding that some have suggested sunsetting the city’s existing rules that allow for greater density of developments that include affordable housing, with the idea that the council pass an interim ordinance while officials take time to create new permanent regulations to adopt at some future point.

The city had done that before, Blossom noted, and it resulted in the current set of regulations but only after a delay of five years.

“The latest talking point in the delay game is this idea that we need an affordable housing strategy.

“We don’t need a need strategy. We already have one and it has three elements: delay, delay and delay,” Blossom said.

The delay game is effective because in only 18 months, Suzuki will become a campaign issue again, she said. Unless significant action is taken by the new council quickly in January, time will pass until the council waits for new members to be seated from the next council election and, as such, another delay.

“Come January, I hope you resist the pressure to jump back on the hamster wheel,” Blossom said.

Blossom returned to her seat on the dais to loud applause from the audience in the council chambers.

Several on the council also applauded heartily, though some who voted against the latest Suzuki development plan this fall did not. Blossom, who ran unsuccessfully in November for a third term, was unseated by a candidate critical of the city’s plans for the Suzuki property.

Optimism remains

In a later interview, Blossom said she wasn’t sure until the last minute that she would get up to give her speech at the council meeting, but knew she must.

“I wanted to use that time to say what I felt needed to be said,” she recalled.

Blossom said she heard later from some on the council that her words were taken to heart, but added that others seemed to miss the point.

The never-ending cycle of delay is the problem, she said.

It’s one that extends beyond Suzuki. The city’s new police station is another example, Blossom said. People use the process — which is important — to prevent projects they don’t want to see happen or just delay the ones they’re against.

“I just want to see something done,” Blossom said.

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