The process by which the Winslow Tomorrow Streetscape has been developed and is currently heading toward implementation, is providing a crash course in the brutal realities of Bainbridge Island politics for those who are paying attention. Unless Council takes a dramatically new course soon, it appears that the Mayor will be well on her way to implementing an agenda that threatens to have grave and widespread consequences for us all.
Those familiar with how business is done at City Hall will recognize the three cardinal rules at play over the last few months. The question before the Council, and the community, is whether this time Council will have the political stamina to break the rules.
Rule #1: Citizens Shall be Seen and Not Heard
In prior articles, we have discussed the heavy influence of a handful of Citizens, many of them downtown property owners, in the latter stages of the Winslow Tomorrow process and on other downtown related committees. Not only are these special interests heavily represented on the Streetscape advisory committee, but amazingly, the controversial, and arguably self serving, funding scheme for the Streetscape was crafted by these same individuals working alongside redevelopment consultant Chuck DePew and Councilperson Kjell Stoknes (see sidebar for more on Mr. Stoknes).
But what about the other 24,000 voices on the Island? To be sure, an incredible amount of lip service is given to public process at City Hall. From the comments made by many advocates for Winslow Tomorrow, you’d think dissenting Citizens had hijacked the process. In fact, a consistent pattern has developed of highly structured “open houses” and other “town meetings” where the message is tightly controlled and the outcome appears to many attendees as a forgone conclusion.
The Streetscape group boasts heartily of the support shown for its preliminary plans at the 4th of July festival. But what about the other two citizen meetings conducted for the project since July? Might not the community, and Council, be interested in the opinions of average citizens provided with details – including costs and funding strategies – and the time to reflect and ask questions?
Unfortunately, we haven’t heard much in the way of an actual summary of public comment from these events, neither have we heard from the Winslow Way business owners (the tenants) nor specifically from the Winslow water and sewer ratepayers.
Perhaps these two questions from a City comment sheet provided at the last public Streetscape meeting say it all (See here for one couple’s responses.):
“8. Do you feel you have a right to say how Winslow Way
should be rebuilt? For what reasons?
9. Do other islanders have the same right to say how your street should be rebuilt? For what reasons?”
Rule #2 The Mayor Shall get her Way
There’s a reason that the Mayor opened last night’s budget presentation looking like the cat that ate the canary. In effect she did when she managed to push her legacy building agenda forward last Wednesday night despite a lack of support by a majority of the seated Council.
The dance between Council and the Administration around the Capital Facilities Plan last month created an ideal opportunity to witness the results of this total disregard of the Administration for Council’s attempts to set policy consistent with community priorities.
At that September 12th meeting, Councilperson Tooloee, often criticized for the tenor of his presentation, but arguably one of the strongest voices on Council, contrasted the spending priorities Council had presented the Administration with those the Administration offered back to Council in the Capital Facilities Plan. According to Tooloee:
“Council directed that total investments in open space, non motorized transportation, affordable housing, and community facilities over the next six years be set at $18 million, $18 million, $11 million, and $5 million, respectively.
The Administration has ignored that policy and drastically slashed the total investments in these areas in the next six years to $10 million, $10 million, $3 million, and $1 million, respectively. These cutbacks are not in line with community values or needs.”
Tooloee went on to demonstrate that the Administration had also chosen to disregard Council’s direction as to the ratio of Voter approved bonds to Council approved (councilmanic) bonds:
“When council adopted the CFP last year by a unanimous vote it limited council-approved bonds to $15.5 million over six years (down from over $35 million as proposed by the Administration) and slated $31 million of voter-approved bonds, to be approved by the voters in 2008 to be sure that they agreed with the priorities established by Council.
The proposed CFP hikes reliance on council-approved bonds (which some disparage as credit card debt!) by 20% to $18 million and cuts voter-approved bonds (the best way for voters to say if they agree with the City) by almost 70% to $10.5 million. The funding mix should give a much greater voice to the voters.”
These fundamental splits between the majority of the Council and the Mayor and Administration, on both spending priorities and funding mechanisms, and the Administration’s attempts to thwart Council’s efforts to set the policy it believes to reflect community values, resulted in some trouble for the Winslow Tomorrow Streetscape Project funding proposal when it was first presented to Council on September 5th. Staff was directed by Council to provide alternatives to the controversial proposal, which relied on council approved bonds, significantly increased fees for Winslow water and sewer users and required no contribution from the owners of benefited properties.
Last Wednesday, Council was presented a barely modified version of the original funding proposal. This time, however, Councilperson Bob Scales was not present due to a planned absence. The result was a foreseeable tie (for those on the inside who knew which Councilpersons would be present) and the Mayor was able to cast the, marginally legal, deciding vote. What is most amazing about the vote is not the incredible fortuitousness of the timing of the vote, but the incredible care that had been taken to craft a motion that the mayor, who cannot break ties to expend funds, could legally vote upon.
Rule #3 Council Shall Bear all Blame
And so, as has often been the case before, the Mayor has placed those on Council who do not support her agenda in a politically untenable position. They can choose to fund the $20.6 million option using the Administration’s preferred funding strategy, or they can refuse to fund the project, a decision which will be billed by the Administration, and the(ir) Bainbridge Review, as a querulous and irresponsible refusal to fund the necessary replacement of leaking pipes.
This is where the breakdown at City Hall has cost us dearly in the past. As much as the Administration has been expert at depriving Council of information and staff, manipulating process, timing and the law to pressure and confuse Council into approving the Mayor’s agenda, Council could have, and indeed has a duty to, refuse to cooperate until the terms are changed.
The result of not stopping the Mayor’s agenda earlier, has been a slow painful descent into a special interest version of Winslow Tomorrow, with the Streetscape being the first of a impending series of expensive and monumental decisions that will change the face of the City forever.
And so, faced with a politically painful decision – to fund or not to fund the Streetscape – what will our Council do?
Time to Break the Rules
That self-satisfied look on the Mayor’s face last night, quickly dissolved when her own loyal (and impeccably professional) finance director made cautionary remarks about the funding of these “extremely large projects for a city of this size.” Mr. Konkel’s remarks when taken in conjunction with the failure of the current process to fairly assess and consider the public will, give great credibility to the position taken thus far by a majority of Council. Council must be called upon to continue to put the community’s best interests before any personal or political concerns.
The mayor’s vote also occurred in a time of increasing calls for a change to a Council-Manager form of government (a thinly veiled attack on her performance), and has incited more than a few of those voices to call outright for a recall election. This decline in support for the Mayor’s agenda also serves to strengthen the mandate for Council’s refusal to cooperate
Councilperson Bill Knobloch, has correctly pointed out that “this is where the rubber meets the road” when addressing the fact that there is only so much money for so many projects. This is also where the rubber meets the road for Council’s success or failure as a political body tasked with representing, and indeed defending, the interests of the community above all else.