Newcomers picked over longtime planning commissioner

When playing cards, it’s called stacking the deck, and environmentalists on Bainbridge Island are up in arms over the makeup of the new Planning Commission.

They are upset that Lisa Macchio, who had been on the commission for 6 1/2 years, was not reappointed. Instead, two architect-urban planners and one newcomer with no planning experience were named. Finally, three of the seven people on the selection committee were not supposed to be involved, according to municiple code.

Retired judge Stephanie Farwall goes even further, saying because of the committee’s incorrect makeup its recommendations to the council should be voided and the process start over.

In an email to Mayor Joe Deets, city manager Blair King and city attorney Joe Levan, environmentalist Ron Peltier says it’s unprecedented that Macchio was not selected. In the past, sitting commissioners were reappointed if they wanted to serve again. Only recently did the City Council even require them to reapply. They serve three-year terms, up to nine years, and some served longer than that, including current Councilmember Jon Quitslund.

Peltier wonders if Macchio wasn’t selected because she recently voted against upzoning an affordable housing project at Bethany Lutheran Church. Her vote was in direct opposition to those of Commissioners Ashley Mathews and chair Sara Blossom, along with the stance of Quitslund, the council liaison to the commission. All three were on the selection committee.

Also on that committee was Deets. City code says the mayor is supposed to approve the recommendations of the committee before sending them on to a vote of the council, not to be on it.

However, Deets said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the makeup of the board was decided at an earlier meeting, and there were no objections. So they followed that plan.

In a follow-up email to the Review June 15, Peltier pointed out to Deets that the motion April 12 does not supercede Municiple Code.

Environmentalists complain that the Planning Commission is now made up of three architect-urban planners; five people who have lived on the island less than four years each; and only Blossom with any experience working on the Comp Plan.

To compare, Macchio has lived on Bainbridge for decades. Along with the Planning Commission, she has served on the Growth Advisory Committee; Shoreline Master Program Update Citizen Advisory Committee and Task Force; the Sustainable Transportation Technical Advisory Team; and the BI Open Space Commission. Macchio was selected by her fellow planning commissioners to be part of the joint Council/Commission on Land Use Committee. She is a newly retired biologist, having worked for the Environmental Protection Agency since 1994.

Now on the Planning Commission are: newcomers Peter Schaab and Sean Sullivan; Benjamin Deines, reappointed after serving six months; Yesh Subramanian and Ariel Birtley, who have been on it about a year; along with Mathews, who has been on it 1 1/2 years, and Blossom, who has been on it 2 1/2 years.

Two other local environmentalists, Lisa and Chris Neal, said the interview questions asked by the selection committee are suspect, with three of the five pertaining to racial equity, rather than planning. None of the questions dealt with issues such as climate change or aquifer protection. Question No. 5 was pointed and asked if single-family zoning is no longer justifiable.

Lisa Neal, who was an applicant for a Planning Commission opening, asked about that question, and she relayed that Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson, who was on the selection committee, answered it was because of the importance of promoting racial equity.

City code requires the Planning Commission to be made up of diverse members who will uphold the Comp Plan. But the Neals worry that instead racial equity was the main goal, and the commission now will focus on doing away with single-family housing. Rather than diverse perspectives it’s a narrow perspective that could drastically change BI land-use regulations, they say.

Macchio said she doesn’t think her rejection has anything to do with Bethany or that the city wants to do away with single-family zoning.

“That’s a reach. Maybe they want all new people,” she said, adding she was “frankly mystified” about why she wasn’t picked. “I deserve to know.”

Regarding getting rid of single-family housing, she said the city doesn’t want that. She recalled when the state was looking at that issue the city shot it down. “They didn’t want to give away local control.”

Macchio said it was ironic that she was not reappointed because she thought about stepping down, but decided to reapply when she received support for her vote on the Bethany project.

“Diversity of opinion is important,” she said. “If you don’t always agree on things, that’s really healthy.”

Macchio said she wants to take the high road regarding the selection committee. And she said she is honored by her service on the commission. “It’s been a really great group of people to work with collaboratively. We didn’t always agree, but we respected each other’s opinion.”

Macchio recalled years ago when BI had a mayor rather than city manager form of government she tried to get on the Planning Commission. She didn’t get on as the commission was stacked with developers. “I was told I was too green by the mayor,” she said.

Commissioner Subramanian even wrote a letter to the City Council asking it to reconsider the recommendations and reappoint Macchio. He went so far to say he would step down so Macchio could have his spot.

He said her knowledge is needed, especially since another longtime commissioner, Bill Chester, was retiring. “We cannot afford to lose both of them at the same time.” He also said Macchio has been a great mentor to him, and with so many newcomers the commission needs Macchio’s perspectives to mentor them. He added her EPA background brings a “much-needed green, biking viewpoint and a focus toward preserving the natural aspects of BI.”

At Tuesday night’s meeting, a number of people spoke in favor of Macchio, including Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos.

“I’m shocked,” she said, adding there is a longstanding unwritten rule about reappointing commissioners. She said Macchio has been a standout, and detractors painted a picture of her being a trouble maker, and that’s not true. She said Macchio’s environmental stance is one held by many in the community.

Hytopoulos said not only was that decision political, but so were some of the questions, especially No. 5, which questioned the need for single-family zoning. Hytopoulos said the question was in direct opposition to the council’s stance. She said in the past questions have always been broad, while these were a “little targeted.” She said it is “extremely troubling to me” that councilmembers on that selection committee allowed that question to be asked that way.

Because of the political manuevers, Hytopoulos changed her previous stance suggested by city manager Blair King to make Planning Commision appointments a separate, more-public process.

A few people supported Macchio during public comments.

Betsey Wittick asked that Macchio be reconsidered. She is intelligent and provides a great service. “I really admire what she brings to the table.”

Marla Steinhoff said she could understand the snub if Macchio was incompetent, but she’s experienced, knowledgeable. “I don’t undertand why. We have to be careful not to create echo chambers” and not be inclusive. She said the panel needs to focus on the Comp Plan, environment, sustainability, and climate change, along with equity issues.

Talis Abolins said Macchio brought expertise and harmony to the commission. He said the council should set a better tone, welcome diverse opinions and facilitate a healthy process. “We don’t want a MEGA World. That’s what this sort of feels like.”

Joe McMillan was more concerned about the panel makeup and questions. “The composition of the selection panel was inconsient with municiple code. “I urge you to revisit that process.”