Councilman Barry Peters recently wrote a letter accusing “a small number” of unnamed island residents of engaging in “personal attack style politics.” Mr. Peters believes that disrespectful citizens are responsible for the recent resignations of several city employees. Mr. Peters issued a call for “civil, neighborly and reasoned dialogue” and asked us to support his civility movement. Since I do not agree with him, I am afraid he may find my comments somewhat uncivil.
Three high-level employees have left the city this year. The city administrator said publicly that she was frustrated with the inability of the elected officials to make decisions and she had grown weary of the tension between the mayor and council. The planning director left after a year with the city and did not give a reason for his departure. The deputy finance director resigned last week after a year on the job. She sent an email about her resignation to the elected officials and department directors and pointed the finger at the mayor and council.
Mr. Peters might also want to check the recently completed Internal Communications Study, which found that staff are generally frustrated by the lack of communication and coordination at City Hall. The study also referred to gag orders the mayor places on staff. How can anyone work in an environment where your boss prohibits you from talking to people about important issues? These problems are nothing new and have been documented in prior surveys of staff and elected officials.
City employees are leaving because of poor management, ineffective leadership and the inability of elected officials to make timely and thoughtful decisions. No one leaves city government because of criticisms from the community. That comes with the territory. Anyone who has worked in city government knows that many actions the city takes will be controversial and will generate both strong support and strong opposition. Local government directly affects people’s lives, and this leads to a high level of public involvement.
Councilman Peters’ call for more civility is really a plea for less scrutiny. He’s not happy about blogs like Bainbridge Notebook peering into the inner workings of City Hall. His job would be a lot easier if the public would accept whatever the city tells them. He’s annoyed by a few “uncivil” citizens who have the audacity to question the effectiveness of city government.
Last year the mayor began her own civility campaign to silence her critics on the council. She had a white “Civility Hat” that she would place on the dais at our meetings in the hope that we would be less critical of her administration. It didn’t work very well. This year the mayor has no need for the “Civility Hat” because she has a solid four-vote majority on the council that will support whatever she wants to do.
With the city’s finances in turmoil and the capital program virtually eliminated, many citizens are turning their attention on the administration, and they do not like what they see. Some of the city’s problems are due to a poor economy. However, the magnitude of the problem is due to incompetence, mismanagement and the withholding of information. Our council and our mayor are failing to make the difficult decisions needed to correct these obvious shortcomings. As a result, citizens are beginning to speak out like never before. Concern is building into outrage and dismay as we watch our city self-destruct.
For example, instead of reducing operating expenses to help weather the financial storm, the mayor and her four council colleagues are getting ready to embark on an unprecedented two-year, $22 million plan to reconstruct Winslow Way and build new police and court facilities. These projects will require new debt that the city cannot possibly repay. Given the city’s poor track record with major capital projects, the final bill will probably be closer to $40 million. Last December the Mayor recommended delaying the police and court facilities for several years because the city did not have the revenue to pay for it. Now the financial situation is worse and yet the mayor wants to accelerate the projects. The new city administrator does not believe the city has the capability of producing even a simple biennial budget. How can they possibly believe that the city can successfully complete these huge projects?
I hope more community members will become engaged in city politics. Let our elected officials know what you think and don’t let them intimidate you.
A final word to Councilman Peters: I took a lot of lumps during my four years on the council. Sometimes I felt that the criticism was unfair, but I knew that it was part of the job. It is more important to listen to what your critics have to say than to worry about how they say it. Just remember – sticks and stones…
Bob Scales is a former member of the Bainbridge City Council