The troubles in the government of the City of Bainbridge Island should be looked upon by the City of Port Orchard as a cautionary tale.
One would, of course, doubt that it could happen here, but sometimes it’s hard to stop once the wrong path is taken. Rather than deliberating on issues and trying to identify what would be unintended consequences if they aren’t recognized and avoided, leaders can find themselves embroiled in controversy based in suspicion and hard feelings.
Little things can snowball and become obstacles to good governance.
Perhaps the way to get on a different path is for the mayor and city councilmembers to say to themselves (and mean it) “It was always done wrong before, even when I did it.”
Whatever issue or question is due for resolution, the role of elected officials is to strive for the best solution as a way to improve things.
Starting out with the presumption that the way things have always been done isn’t necessarily the best way, could allow everyone to discuss matters without ruffling feathers.
Take the recent kerfuffle about confirming the appointment of a city clerk as an example of how things could be done. First, look at the law to see how it describes the role of each player — then respect the role of each one.
State law gives the mayor the authority to remove the city clerk “at his or her pleasure.” (RCW 35.23.021)
The first thing one might notice when taking a fresh look at the issue is that the city code conflicts with the statute.
Even though no one has acted as though the city code means what it says, according to the code the “mayormay appoint or remove the city clerk subject to a confirmation vote by a majority of the city council.”
Only the appointment is subject to confirmation by the council under state law, and the city’s code cannot conflict with state law. So, the first action probably should be amending the city’s code so that it doesn’t say removal requires council confirmation.
Correcting the city code shouldn’t cause any hard feelings, since no one seems to have acted as though the mayor ever needed council approval to remove someone who serves at the pleasure of the mayor under state law.
Leaving the error in the city code invites trouble later, if someone thinks it means what it says despite the conflict with state law.
In deliberating on the choice of a person to be appointed as city clerk, the roles of both the mayor and the council have to be respected.
The mayor gets to pick a person, but cannot put that person in the position without the approval of a majority of the council.
Even if appointments by previous mayors were “rubber-stamped” by previous councils for as far back as anyone can remember, it doesn’t matter.
Past practice cannot eliminate the council’s responsibility to decide whether the mayor’s pick is suitable under all the circumstances.
Remember, the presumption should be that it was always done wrong before.
There is no disrespect of the mayor when the council takes seriously the responsibility to agree or disagree with the mayor’s choice.
If enough councilmembers are interested in combining the positions of clerk and treasurer, then they need to consider how the reorganization would affect the choice of a person to fill the position and the timing of the appointment.
The mayor can suggest such a reorganization (as he did), but cannot require the council to drop the subject later.
It may be fine to appoint someone now as city clerk and later reorganize, but the council should consider whether it is, or not.
Recognizing the authority and responsibility of all those involved makes it possible to decide without rancor. After a little practice, going down the right path may come naturally.
But, as Bainbridge Island’s woes show, human nature doesn’t always lead people down the right path.
Columnist Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.