Two candidates are seeking another term on the Bainbridge Island City Council, but with a big difference.
Sarah Blossom is the incumbent in the race for the South Ward, Position 4 seat on the seven-member council.
Blossom, an attorney, was first elected to the council in November 2011 and is seeking a third term.
Blossom, 42, earned her law degree at the Seattle University School of Law, and her undergraduate’s degree (business Administration) is also from Seattle University.
Michael Pollock is the challenger. A policy analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he previously served on the council from 1999 to 2003 and is also currently an elected official, for the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park & Recreation District.
Pollock, 56, graduated from Humboldt State University (biochemistry) and received a doctorate’s degree from the University of Washington (ecosystems analysis). His website is at www.Pollock4Council.com.
* Transcripts edited for length and clarity.
BIR: Given that you’ve been on the council for almost eight years, what has been your most difficult vote? And what did you learn from it?
SB: Most difficult vote. It’s hard to go back eight years.
BIR: Current term?
SB: The obvious answer would be Suzuki. I don’t know that I find things difficult. That’s why I’m struggling to answer. When I vote, I’m pretty confident that I’m doing what I think is right. And I am very well aware that not everyone’s going to love it. And that’s just part of the process.
I don’t know that I’ve ever had a vote that I’ve really struggled with. Suzuki, I know it was a good decision and the right way to move forward.
I don’t know if what we voted for will ultimately be what’s built, but I think it’s important to keep it moving forward. But just the timing of that vote; I had a couple people say, “You know … This vote could really determine whether or not you’re successful for a third term.”
And I understood that going in.
There must have been a difficult vote at some point in history, because I remember thinking a few years ago that if I ever got to the point where I was casting votes based on how I thought that would impact my next campaign, or my chance to get re-elected, that I probably shouldn’t be there anymore.
That’s not how I can make decisions. I’m here now; I’m elected to this position right now; I have to do my job right now. I can’t be thinking about how to secure that in the future.
So that [Suzuki vote] was, I guess, difficult because I definitely was aware that I was going to take some hits. It’s very controversial. But I didn’t lose a lot of sleep over it because I thought it was the right thing.
BIR: You’re not surprised at all, that for some people, that issue is really in their minds right now as we head into this election?
SB: It’s campaign season. I’m not on social media, but I read it. It is. When I started, it was the water system. And SMP. Visconsi was a big issue when Ron [Peltier] ran. It seems every election there’s some kind of standout issue, and this time it’s Suzuki.
And, you know, there’s someone who supports Kol [Medina], for example, and not me, when Kol and I are not lockstep with each other but we’re I think, pretty similar in our principles. And the only difference between us would be Suzuki.
And this person fully supports Kol and has hit me any chance he gets. It’s unfortunate that, you know, campaigns and elections become about one issue, because it really is just one issue out of many.
And you have to, as much as you hate a decision someone made, you have to look at the whole and understand there’s a lot more to this business than that one project.
I’m not surprised that it’s kind of a big topic.
BIR: Let me read a quote from your opponent. On the topic of Suzuki, and qualifying incomes of people who can live there: “The council is literally voting people off the island.” So what he’s saying there is, for Suzuki, some of those homes are going to be benefiting people who really aren’t the most direly in need of housing.
SB:I guess they are one bracket above what is defined as affordable. And that is true. I understand the point, which is, there is some amount of housing at that price level already. Very little, but some. The difference being: These will be deed restrictive, so they will always be at that income level. And the people who are buying those are not going to benefit from the increases in equity, that most people do, from home ownership.
The way that we’re trying to accomplish Suzuki is to do it in a way that does not further burden people who are already here. He’s referring to the housing needs assessment that was done a few years ago.
There’s not going to be an increase in Bainbridge residents’ taxes to pay for this. We’re not doing like an affordable housing bond.
And so, the way that Bainbridge residents are subsidizing it is: the land donation. And HRB [Housing Resources Bainbridge] has indicated that they are going to ask for, not a permit fee waiver, but for the city to cover the costs of the permits. Which is a decision that has not been made. I know that our city manager is concerned about trying to accommodate that in our budget.
There’s not going to be this direct impact to taxpayers.
And if you go with Kol’s idea, which is to just sell the land and give the money to HRB, it’s really the same result. We’re donating the value of the land; just as cash at that point.
One of the reasons we are where we are is the council passed this resolution last year indicating we wanted Suzuki to be 100 percent affordable.
SB: And so I think that [consultant] BRIDGE and HRB, they were trying to honor that, because that is what we said we wanted. And so, they had to take that into account when they were doing these models. And they were trying to stay as close to 100 percent as possible.
I think it’s clear now that that’s probably not possible.
Unless we were to do something, like the city was to pass a bond, or do councilmanic bonds, and actually put more than just the land into it. Which I’m not saying we should.
If the council is willing to step away from that ideal of 100 percent affordable — if that was a great goal to try to achieve but is just not likely to happen — if we were to step away from that and do some actual market-rate units, true market rate, that could subsidize the lower-income housing on the project, then we could probably get the number of units down to a number that the neighborhoods can accept and support. And not being reliant on this kind of very tenuous financing of these low-income housing tax credits and money from the state.
If we could instead, because we have more money coming from the sale of market-rate units to put back in, they might alleviate Kol’s concerns that it just isn’t going to happen. And so, I just talked to Phedra [Elliott, HRB, executive director] and said, are you guys open to rethinking — if the council’s open to kind of stepping back from this 100-percent affordable — rethinking a way to get this done? It can get done quicker if we’re not relying on grant cycles. There’s not going to be as many affordable units, but we know that we have some.
BIR: Your opponent has been critical of the council moving forward on issues when decisions have been made by a slim majority. He said: “In my view, such an approach only increases divisiveness and leads to yet more polarization and fracturing in our community.” How realistic is that, to envision a council that’s 7-0 on everything?
SB: It’s not realistic.
BIR: Why not? What makes it difficult to gain more than the base majority? Or is the base majority a bad thing? It is a seven-member council.
SB: I would say, the base majority can be a bad thing. This has happened in the past, where you kind of have that group of four that just vote along with each other and there’s not really a chance for the open discussions and debates.
I think this council in particular, other than a couple votes, there’s actually quite a bit of fluidity in how our votes come down. We’re not always all on the same side. I think we are very respectful of each other and we have different opinions and we talk about it. And I think that as long as those discussions are happening, and it’s not just, ‘I got my votes, we’re going to move ahead,’ I think that having a base majority is fine.
It’s just important that debate and discussion is happening. And that you’re not having the same four every time. That does not look good. And that’s really frustrating, if you’re not in that four. Because you just feel like there’s nothing you can do; you can’t make any headway, they are just always going to stick together.
That situation is not good. I don’t think that’s what we have now. I think it would be beneficial for a project, particularly like Suzuki, to have not just a 4-3 vote. I don’t expect it to be a 7-0 vote.
But you can always strive for consensus. I think there’s nothing wrong with trying to achieve that. I don’t know that it’s realistic to expect it every time.
BIR: Affordable housing, again. Inclusionary zoning. Do you support relaxing or increasing building heights downtown to get more density?
SB: In some zones. And you’re right, that there are a lot of recommendations in that report. But only a few are going to get a measurable amount [of new affordable housing units]. Inclusionary zoning being one of them.
Once the report came back, it was a really significant increase in the density that would be required. There were some people in the room when this draft report was first presented, there were members of the affordable housing task force that even had this kind of like, “whoah,” reaction. “That’s a lot.”
The character of the island, it is important. We can’t forget that, but we’ve got to try to fit some of these things in. So I’d like to move ahead with inclusionary zoning, but not everywhere. And right now, where I’m thinking, most of the council, is this High School Road district, and the ferry terminal district. To start with, at least.
I just don’t know that the density and the height that goes along with it, I just can’t see that in our older downtown, main street.
BIR: Speaking of the ferry district, what would you like to see done with the old police department property?
SB:[Laughs.] Well, I have this grand plan. I think it’s really cool, but it’s my own thing. [Laughs.] Someone once said to me (I’m the liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission), ‘Wouldn’t that be a great spot for the history museum?’ Right there, by the art museum. And a number of months later, someone came to the Historic Preservation Commission with this idea of having a maritime museum. It would have to be down at the [Washington State Ferries] maintenance yard. He was talking about working with the ferries, and maybe we could even get them to give us an old decommissioned ferry; it could be like a floating museum. And if it was down there on a dock, wouldn’t it be cool to have a shuttle over to the Japanese memorial? So if I had my grand plan, I think it would be cool to have the history museum at least be part of something. The art museum’s there, you could walk on the trail down to the floating maritime museum, and take a shuttle boat across to the memorial.
But that’s kind of pie in the sky.
Then, realistically, I know the assumption in our budget is to sell that property and put that money back in to the police station.
So doing something different would require us to look at the budget.
Maybe an additional project that had some, maybe not all affordable, some affordable units located right downtown near the ferry. Whether or not you could make that an affordable housing project would take some study, of the feasibility and the costs involved.
This is the most expensive place to develop. But I think it would be a great place for some housing. Maybe a museum on the first floor.
BIR: What’s going to happen to your park district seat if you get elected?
MP: I’ll resign that. It’ll become available.
BIR: What do you say to people who might be disappointed that you’re not filling out your full term? That you’re not finishing that commitment you made when you ran?
MP: That’s a fair question. I think my skills are better suited for the city council.
The park district, quite honestly, is a well-run district. And I think Terry Lande does a really good job of running it. He’s got employees who really enjoy working there. There are people who have been there 20, 30 years; they’re not going anywhere.
Honestly, there’s not a lot for me to do there. Almost every vote is 5-0. Terry figures out, works with staff to figure out and resolve things before he brings things to us for a vote.
It’s a nice oversight position, but there’s not a lot of tough issues that are being handled. And the tough ones that are, are handled administratively.
It’s fun; I love going there. It feels like a little social gathering when we go there. It’s much more informal than the city council.
It’s a nice position. It’s just, I think, there’s not a lot to do.
BIR: When did the light go on that you decided, maybe the city council makes more sense than what I’m doing on the parks board.
MP: Last December, I was really reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report. And just seeing what the effects were going to be in the next 10 to 15 years on climate change if we don’t get our act together.
In that process, there was basically a call to action that said we need to undergo societal changes at all levels of the government and society. So it felt like a call to action to me. And I responded. I thought, you know, local government is a place I can really contribute and make a difference, and move us toward more climate-friendly policies.
That was really it.
I went into parks looking like, “I’m going to find something.” There’s got to be problems with the budget or the way things are run.
Terry’s like, “OK, Michael, fair enough. Here, let me show you.”
He lays it all out. I look through numbers.
They are cheap SOBs. Kind of duct tape and baling wire, and they can fix anything.
They’re really frugal. Every single receipt for everything, they put in a binder. Every little thing that somebody spends, you can look and see.
They are just super accountable. They’re transparent. They’re fiscally responsible.
It’s hard to find something wrong with parks.
As the saying goes, when two people agree on everything, one of them’s not needed. [Laughs.]
BIR: You just mentioned climate change, let’s jump forward on that.
MP: Well, on parks, on climate change, I am working right now to get climate change policies incorporated into the comp plan; the park board comp plan review. That’s something that I feel I can make a difference there.
BIR: On your website, you address climate change. You advocate for “financial and regulatory support for existing home and landowners who want to convert to more energy-efficient buildings and install alternative energy sources, such as rooftop or parking lot solar.” What sort of level of support do you think the city could devote to that?
MP: Another good question. I think they could streamline the regulatory process.
If you start putting more than 30 percent of your roof on solar, then you need to go into a whole different sort of engineering category.
I think that a little more assistance — I’m trying to think how to diplomatically say this — if they [COBI] were encouraging of it, and reaching out to people, identifying people that have solar capacity. And say, hey, we would like you to do solar and how can we help. Do you need assistance? Do you just need a permit? Do you just need people to help you put it on?
In terms of facilitating that kind of stuff, the city can play a role.
BIR: You said you support regulatory and financial incentives to help people transition to new forms of transportation, like electric mobility carts, electric cars, scooters, etc. What sort of financial incentives are you envisioning?
MP: Are you familiar with conservation easements? Something along those lines I would like to explore. Can we do that for energy, can we do that for a home that you’ve got solar on?
Yeah, saying, “I’m going to grow this much energy on my property.” Solar panels aren’t necessarily the prettiest thing. So that would be an example of a financial incentive; some tax credits of some sort.
BIR: So financial incentives for electric-powered transportation?
MP: The extent to which we can do that at the local level is a little challenging. But I think we can do things like provide charging stations for free, where you can just come to the island, especially when we’re talking about affordability on the island and trying to transition to electric vehicles. So, build affordable housing and provide free charging stations where people can come and charge. That’s just one way for them to save. That eliminates, essentially, their fuel costs. That’s one example.
Other things I would love to see: working with the state for priority loading for electric vehicles; charging while you are waiting to get on the ferry. Things like that.
BIR: You said the council resolution on the Green New Deal was meaningless. But some people really appreciated that action. Why was that statement of support meaningless?
MP: Perhaps it could have been phrased better. I think that my point is, we need to take action. The climate report wasn’t a call for more resolutions; it was a call to action. We actually have to do things. And so, all the resolutions in the world aren’t going to fix climate change. What we need to do is actually take meaningful actions that have an outcome of reduced carbon emissions and a reduced carbon footprint. That’s what I meant by that.
BIR: Let’s talk about the council and some of its actions. You said, the council “is willing to move forward on controversial issues even when a bare majority of the council approves. In my view, such an approach only increases divisiveness, and leads to yet more polarization and fracturing in our community.” What issues were you thinking of when you made that statement?
MP: I think issues around, unsurprisingly, growth. The HDDP; it started out as design demonstration — if you do green buildings, you can have 2 1/2 times the density in the underlying zoning. That’s where it started, then it was going to get killed off because it wasn’t working, apparently. I don’t have the whole detailed history.
Somebody said, hey, why don’t we convert it into affordable housing? If you are going to make something with 100 percent affordable housing, then you can have 2 1/2 times the underlying density.
Then, this Suzuki project came up and there was a push to have 100 units.
They realized that they needed the HDDP program to move forward with the density of 100.
We’re creating an upzone, and maybe we ought to have a comp plan amendment. We certainly ought to be having a lot more public input, because this is something that is a significant change in our zoning.
Where the divisiveness came, was then when the council realized that under existing law, and the proposal for Suzuki, they weren’t going to be able to build 100 percent affordable; that they were only going to be 60 percent affordable. They proposed now to change the HDDP to make it only 60 percent of the homes are required to be affordable to apply the 2.5 density bonus.
That was controversial and Suzuki itself was controversial. And instead of kind of thinking through and developing the policies that are going to get them where they want to go, they more have an idea in mind of a project they want to build and now they are rewriting the laws so that project is legal.
They’re really just custom tailoring this HDDP.
That kind of thinking or decision-making has led to a lot of 4-3 votes.
BIR: You also said, “Council decisions should be evidence-based rather than reactive to the loud voices of a few.” Share an example or two of loud voices influencing a council decision.
MP: The affordability issue in general is not leading to rational decision-making, or evidence-based decision-making.
You have people saying there’s people who need homes, we have to help them.
Which we know. We arguably should, to a certain extent. But there’s costs associated with that.
If you look at Suzuki as an example … you look at the cost to the taxpayer, the overall taxpayers, from all the different sources. We’re looking at about $300,000 per unit of subsidies overall.
No one on the council is really talking about that. They are really reacting to the sense that there is affordable housing and we need to do something, and sort of, damn the costs, full speed ahead.
And so I think that’s probably the prime example of, instead of taking a hard look at the numbers and saying, “How can we best use the taxpayers’ dollars to achieve these objectives?” — they just kind of react emotionally.
People demanding that they do something, and again, some very loud voices.
BIR: What would you like to see happen with the police station property downtown? Should that stay in public ownership?
MP: It’s a pretty special piece of property. It’s our entranceway. We really ought to think about what we want to do with that in context of, that’s the first thing people see when they come off the island. Rod Stevens, he had suggested building affordable housing there, instead of Suzuki. Making Suzuki into a park. I think that’s an interesting idea.
Let’s just say high-density housing of some sort there.
You’re putting it near the transportation center, so it’s climate friendly, right? And then you are putting it near where people that have to work in Seattle — which is a lot of people on the island — they can hop right onto the ferry. You are giving people that are of modest means, frankly, kind of a nice place. They get a view; you’re not cramming them into some little dark apartment somewhere. You’re giving them a chance to enjoy the environment that the rest of us enjoy.
Small, little compact units with a great view of Eagle Harbor. What better way to welcome people to Bainbridge Island than to have nice, livable affordable units there to greet them?
BIR: What do you think of the hotel proposal?
MP: I think it’s well intended.
I would rather see houses go there, rather than a hotel. Because then we’re building a community rather than having kind of a transient population moving through.
BIR: Some voters may have apprehensions about what level of commitment you will bring to the council, based on your many missing meetings during your first year on the park board. What can you do to lessen the concerns of folks who wonder if you will bring less than a full commitment to the council? In terms of coming prepared. Coming to the meetings. And adding to the deliberations of the council.
MP: I was on council before and I have a very good track record of being at those meetings. Of course, this year, I have a very good track record at the park board meetings.
I did have that conflict, which you talked about, and that’s been resolved. There’s not going to be a conflict moving forward.
As far as demonstration of being prepared, go to my website or go look at some of the Facebook threads. I do pretty good in-depth research on issues. And so, you can get a sense from that by looking at the website.