Rolfes backs bid allowing Bainbridge to change its government

UPDATED: An emergency bill that would grant Bainbridge Island an early vote on changing its form of government will have a hearing before members of the state Legislature on Thursday.

The House Committee on Local Government & Housing will hear from the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Christine Rolfes, and supporters of a public vote that may replace the city’s elected mayor with a hired city manager.

The bill would alter state law, allowing cities to schedule special elections to alter the structure of local governments. Current state rules require that change-of-government ballot measures go to voters only in November. The rule was enacted to save small cities from having to spend thousands of dollars on special petition-driven elections.

The Bainbridge City Council and petitioners who gathered signatures for the ballot measure support a vote on May 19, about six months earlier than the law allows.

Rolfes, a Bainbridge Democrat and former Bainbridge city councilwoman, said the rule change is good for Bainbridge and other Washington cities.

“I believe that the proposal itself is good public policy – it makes better sense for the people of a city to decide their form of government prior to council and mayoral elections,” she said on Monday. “And that makes sense statewide, not just on Bainbridge. I’ve talked with a number of legislators, and there is general agreement that it’s a good change to make.”

Sen. Phil Rockefeller, also a Bainbridge Democrat, introduced similar legislation in the state Senate this month. His bill was directed to the Government Operations & Elections Committee, but a hearing date has not been set.

Rolfes had earlier warned that the state’s ailing economy and other pressing issues might push the bill to the wayside.

“I don’t think that the situation on Bainbridge would constitute ‘an emergency for the state,'” she wrote in a letter to the Bainbridge council in November.

Now Rolfes is upbeat about the bill’s chances.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “It’s a very simple change. My original cautionary notes were to the City Council members, prior to their council debate about when to schedule the vote. I wanted be very clear that we cannot guarantee passage of bills, and adding the emergency clause gives it an additional hurdle.”

Rolfes specified in the bill that the rule change is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, or support of the state government and its existing public institutions,” and should take effect immediately.

Rolfes hopes legislators in the local government committee will agree the bill deserves emergency status, giving it priority over other bills and putting it in position for passage before the proposed May vote.

“I think if it comes out of committee with the clause intact, then we are likely to be able to keep it on throughout the process,” she said. “So, I’ll need some folks to come down and help me argue for it.”

The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the state Capitol in Olympia. No room location has yet been set.