Posted on 09 June 2013.
Perhaps Councilmember Blair best captured the tone of Wednesday’s (June 5) Council meeting when, following adjournment at nearly 11 p.m., she muttered, “Screw it.”
Judging by the combative and vituperative, as well as excruciatingly long discussion of our water utility management, Blair’s off-cuff vent expressed how many people seemed to feel that night—screwed.
As most in the packed room anticipated the long-awaited vote as to whether management of Bainbridge Island’s water utility would be retained by the City or outsourced to the Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD), it came as a surprise that the vote became beside the point.
In place of scheduled remarks on the subject by City Manager Doug Schulze as requested unanimously by the council at its previous meeting, Mayor Bonkowski pulled a coup with a 6-point presentation that by his own admission was an alternative to what he had realized was to be a failed vote that night to divest control of our City water to the KPUD. Looking to keep the issue in play, Bonkowski punted a counterproposal that would in part give what he asserted was overbudgeted money in the utility reserve account to the ratepayers.
The mayor justified his move by saying Schulze had failed to provide data from the city about what the overall cost of the water utility would be. “The most troubling aspect is we still don’t know the impact to the ratepayers,” he said.
Much of the rest of the night’s discussion focused on the mayor’s maneuver, which Councilmembers Hytopolous and Scales as well as numerous audience members objected to as an indictment of the new city manager, disrespectful of the city staff, and in direct defiance of legal due process according to our city manager form of government.
The Council fell into predictable factions, with Councilmembers Dave Ward and Sarah Blossom supporting the mayor’s ideas and objecting to objections by other councilmembers. Councilmember Debbi Lester, who presided over the meeting, allowed Bonkowski to make his presentation, but, like Blair, largely stayed out of the fray.
Hytopolous drew strong applause when she said, “The city manager has not been allowed to present. This is exactly the sort of work he was hired to do, but instead a councilmember is presenting this kind of information. If we have a problem with the city manager, we tell him and give him a chance to respond. We don’t circumvent him. You’re proposing massive changes to the water budget. Why did we hire him if we are not going to let him do his job?”
Bonkowski drew guffaws when he stated, “I have no problem with having the city manager review this information.”
In Bonkowski’s defense, Ward, apparently missing the irony of his own statement, said, “We shouldn’t have to dig up this information. This is the job of the city manager.”
Blossom, who said she had planned to vote against outsourcing the city’s water, thanked the mayor for bringing forward what she called a solution. She too drew outbursts of derisive laughter when she concluded by saying to Hytopolous, “Your attack has set the tone for the rest of this conversation.”
Scales, who decried the undermining of the city manager and staff, asked for time to review Bonksowki’s ideas: “We’re being asked to take Steve’s analysis here and make management decisions on the fly involving millions of dollars.” He concluded sarcastically that the city could save enormous money simply by having Bonkowski do the work of the manager and staff.
Ward Spills His Water
As the discussion was opened for public comment, a moment of awkward levity when Ward spilled his water and Blair giggled while assisting him in wiping it up failed to diffuse citizen anger.
Angry Public Comment
Former Utilities Advisory Committee (UAC) member Dan Mallove said, “I’m absolutely appalled by the mayor’s lack of understanding of state law, legal process, and the city manager form of government. I know from my experience on the UAC that these facts are misrepresented. . . . It is appalling to treat your city manager with these kind of attacks.”
Arlene Buetow, current chair of the UAC, countered Mallove’s remarks: “I’m here to assure the public that the statements he [Bonkowski] made are 100 percent accurate. We weren’t prepared for the report from the City Manager that showed up on the City’s website on Saturday morning. . . . I find the heckling here to be offensive.”
Erica Striner drew whoops and applause when she said she had worked with four different local governments and in the private sector and had never seen anything as disrespectful as the treatment of Schulze that night, calling the mayor’s behavior grandstanding: “I am sad for this city tonight. We’re taxpayers, and we pay the salaries of our staff. How do you expect us to have a city that works when you treat our practically new city manager who you supposedly hand-picked and spent a heck of a lot of money to find like this? I hope this council will learn good manners.”
Ratepayer Dick Allen said, “Our track record at the city of managing the water utility is dismal. I hope the city will do this proposal. We account for only 25 percent of the Island’s water but were charged for a study of water across the Island.” Addressing the city manager, he added, “Somebody needs to make this city honest, and if you can’t you better pack your bags and get out of here.”
Former Councilmember Barry Peters said, “I’m a rate payer too. I believe it is possible for our city to deliver utility management. . . . For our coucil manager government to work there must be a partnership with the staff and manager. I hope we will move in that direction that 70 percent of us voted for just four years ago.”
After an agonizing tangle of moves, amendments, amendments to amendments, and votes that the Council could barely track as it fumbled through the end of the session, it was decided that Schulze and Bonkowski would review the proposal and the meeting would be adjourned without further ado.
Photos courtesy of Kris Krug, David Shellabarger, and City of Bainbridge Island.