City Hall’s revolving door


Read on for my story on why the city is struggling to hold on to its senior managers….

Poison Politics Pushes Revolving Door at Bainbridge City Hall
By Tristan Baurick

The public accusation that Finance Director Elray Konkel had scribbled the city budget on the back of an envelope was the last straw.

Konkel, a veteran municipal number cruncher, already had his share of frustrations working at City Hall, but the crack about the budget from a city councilman sent Konkel into the arms of other cities offering higher pay and better working conditions. Just as the city of Kirkland was poised to snatch Konkel, the Bainbridge council tried to lure him back with a mea culpa and a promise to treat Konkel and other city staff with more respect.

Konkel bit, and two years later, he’s still here. He says the respect, however, hasn’t yet arrived.

“We just have new faces on the council, but not much has changed,” he said. “But we need it to change. To keep the good people, we need to see respect from the council and the community for everybody working here, from the mayor right down to the clerk at the front desk.”

While Konkel stuck around, his deputy finance director didn’t have as much patience. Citing frustration caused by political infighting, Carol Badzik leapt last week from what other former senior managers say is a sinking ship in a sea of political indecision, second-guessing and nasty politics.

Badzik’s departure last week after only 13 months on the job followed resignations from the city administrator, planning department director and downtown planning manager.

All four senior managers pointed to elected officials’ flawed relationships with each other and with staff.

“The poor working relationship between you is palpable and I believe that it is debilitating the city and wasting its resources,” Badzik wrote in a letter to the mayor and council, echoing statements made by former City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs, who resigned in January.

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil took Badzik’s comments to heart. In a written response, Vancil agreed that elected officials must treat staff fairly and unite for the common good.

“It appears that the only resolution for the staff is to be able to work compatibly with one directive, supported by both the executive and the legislative,” Vancil wrote. “This means that both branches of government must put the benefit of the community above their own ambition when determining direction.”

But even when the city manages to agree on a direction, too often the rudder is yanked the other way, said Sandy Fischer, who managed the Winslow Tomorrow planning initiative until her resignation last spring.

“We spend a lot of time and energy and see some progress, but we then see a lot of reversal on the part of the council,” she said. “Staff are told to do a job and then we watch things change course, funds get redirected, and no decision is made.”

Trying to incorporate a project’s every twist and turn, only to see it killed after months or years of work, has led some of the city’s best and brightest to seek work elsewhere.

“Professionals used to getting results become jaded and frustrated,” said Fischer.

That was the case with former planning director Greg Byrne. Highly regarded by the council and staff alike, Byrne came to the city in April 2007 with a resume and outlook that fit the island’s values. He’d worked to preserve open spaces and walkable downtowns. He hoped to craft environmentally friendly building guidelines, bolster support for local businesses and encourage affordable housing options.

He left after 16 months on the job. Byrne kept quiet about his reasons for leaving, but his colleagues say frustration with stalled projects was part of what sent him packing.

“At the council meeting when he said goodbye, he only thanked the mayor,” Konkel said. “There was a point he made there in his goodbye. He felt totally unsupported by the council.”

Frustration has seeped into some of the city’s middle-management and rank-and-file professionals. Two city engineers said they recently left after witnessing projects suffocate under the weight of public processes, deliberations and debates.

As public debates become heated, staff are often pulled into battles fought in public meetings, e-mails and on blogs.

“How can staff complete the (capital facilities plan) and not be personally attacked in the current political climate?” Badzik asked in her letter. “If one project gets included half of you are angry. If it’s not included the other half are furious really furious.”

The public’s penchant for personal attacks was also cited as a reason for some of the recent resignations.

“There was a fair amount of negativism from portions of the community that sucked (Byrnes) enthusiasm,” said Councilman Kjell Stoknes, who noted that Byrne was especially disappointed by the public’s attacks against planning staff.

Too often, the public rails against what they see as wrong rather than rolling up their sleeves for what they feel is right, according to Konkel and Fischer.

“We just see so much more willingness to disrupt rather than collaborate,” Fischer said.

The impact of staff frustration and resignations are taking a toll on the city, said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy.

“Every time we lose key people, our efficiency, effectiveness and credibility falls,” she said.

Making city hall the type of place that attracts and retains competent professionals will require that everyone — the mayor, council, public and staff — accept a dose of responsibility for the city’s ills, according to Fischer.

“I think everybody needs to take a look in the mirror,” she said. “It’s easy to say it’s the fault of the council or mayor or Public Works director, but it’s really dynamic that needs to change.”

Characterized by “privilege and affluence,” the community often seeks perfection in its government, she said. But too often, the quest for perfection leads to paralysis and frustrations.

“In the pursuit of perfection, you don’t end up with anything perfect,” she said. “You don’t even get something good. You get a lot of people discouraged with the way things are.”

5 thoughts on “City Hall’s revolving door

  1. The only one who needs to look in the mirror is the mayor.

    An honest assessment would conclude that every time the city staff fails to execute a plan like a waterfront park bathroom they lose credibility. Every time they fail to come up with a workable plan for Wing Point Way they lose credibility. Every time they drop the ball on code enforcement they lose credibility. Every time they develop a pie-in-the-sky budget and then whine and complain when the council trims it back to reality, they lose credibility. Every time they pitch a plan like Winslow Tomorrow with zero idea where the funding might come from, they lose credibility. Every time the Mayor rigs the cost of a consultant’s training/retreat program to keep it from coming to a vote of the council, they lose credibility. Every time they create a self-serving survey to try to support their half-hidden goals for the city, they lose credibility. This garbage goes on and on and on and on.

    The lack of credibility is entirely deserved. It starts with the Mayor and Konkel. If that sounds like a personal attack, tough. Their ridiculous actions during 2008 budgeting process are all the evidence needed to support the accusation, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that there’s plenty of other evidence of incompetence.

  2. Let us see if Editor Hallock, Bainbridge Islander, will have the fairness to publish this letter after giving Councilman Peters’ 850 word letter front-and-center treatment. Any predications?


    Published in the Review. Also submitted to Sun and Islander.

    Councilperson Peters’ indictment, Personal Attacks Have No Place in Effective Government, is far more illustrative of internal ills that bedevil City of Bainbridge government than of outside cabals fomenting palace intrigues. Without one iota of evidence, Mr. Peters feebly asserts that a minority group –lacking in “human decency” — is causing COBI’s incredible fiscal, policy, and political failures. It is no coincidence Mr. Peters fails to provide proof of “personal attacks” causing the revolving-door resignations of senior managers and staff personnel. What Mr. Peters does instead is set up an outrageous straw-man argument of how he and City of Bainbridge (with 155 employees, $57M budget and legions of consultants) are hapless victims of public enemy #1 — sharp-tongued critics of waste, fraud and abuse.
    The good voters of Bainbridge are left with a clear choice: are you going to believe Barry Peters’ victim story or are you going to believe your own eyes and ears? Having read thoughtful analysis on the local blogs, newspapers and watched BITV’s Council coverage with public comment, I for one believe my eyes and ears and not Mr. Peters’ rhetorical chimera.
    Transparent attempts by local editors and public elected officials to shame or intimidate critics is a dangerous course that is anti-democratic and divisive. Taxpayers and voters have ample reason to voice criticism and frustration. As you will recall, nowhere in the COBI financed Benchmark Study ($167,000) was public criticism of government cited as a cause of COBI/Council “severe dysfunction.”
    As to Councilman Peters’ issue with free speech: the answer is more free speech, not censure.

  3. Why can’t we play nice in the sandbox?

    It seems like everybody is throwing sand at each other in our beautiful sandbox of Bainbridge Island. It’s not fun to play anymore. When great city staffers leave and only the bullies remain to fight it out, no one gets to enjoy the sandbox.

    In a children’s sandbox, an adult would jump in and give everyone a timeout. I think it’s time for everyone on the island to take a timeout.

    Here is what I am suggesting. For the next year — yes year — the only thing that gets taken care of is what is falling apart. Roads, sewers, water lines. In other words, bare bones maintenance.

    Everything else stops. No Winslow Tomorrow, no special interest projects, no new hires.

    Once we get a handle on the basics, then we can start thinking about the fun things. It sounds simple, simplistic even, but it’s not.

    It requires everyone to focus on the little things and create a few small successes. Without the successes and solid teamwork, great hires will not want to work here, brilliant minds will stop participating, and we will all have to suffer the consequences.

    So, Madam Mayor and City Council, be bold and give us a timeout.

  4. Beverly wrote: “Here is what I am suggesting. For the next year — yes year — the only thing that gets taken care of is what is falling apart. Roads, sewers, water lines. In other words, bare bones in interpreting their job descriptions. And legislators feelmaintenance.

    Everything else stops. No Winslow Tomorrow, no special interest entrepreneuprojects, no new hires.

    Once we get a handle on the basics, then we can start thinking about the fun things.”

    Bravo, Beverly. This should be done – not only at the city level – but, at the county and state level, as well. Of course it probably won’t happen. Bureaucrats have been given far too much latitude to create their own job “description”. And legislators typically feel their first order of business is to introduce a new program or regulation that will serve as their legacy.

    They need to eat their vegetables before they move on to dessert. No-one’s been imposing that discipline, though.

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