Mayor vs. manager: a battle of bobbleheads

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With wobbly necks and nodding heads, bobblehead dolls are an agreeable companion in any public debate.

Bob Fortner brought eight with him to Bainbridge High School for a Monday night debate over whether the city of Bainbridge should swap its elected mayor for a hired manager.

“Our current form looks like this,” said Fortner, a proponent of the manager form, as he set down a single bobblehead to represent the island’s mayor. Then, setting seven bobbleheads on a podium, Fornter continued, “This way is a broader representation of voters’ values, philosophies and interests.”

Fortner, an island business owner and longtime City Hall watcher, urged the audience of about 60 people to vote on May 19 to eliminate the mayor position and concentrate power with the seven-member City Council, which would hire a manager to carry out the city’s administrative duties.

Fortner’s debate opponent, island resident and University of Washington public policy scholar David Harrison, took the podium, swiveling the dolls around for nose-to-nose face offs. Their heads shook and bobbed to seven different rhythms.

“Because I’m a friend of Bob’s, I’m not going to have them kicking each other,” Harrison said, joking about the sharply divided council.

Whether mayor- or manager-led, the council will continue to tussle over conflicting views and agendas, Harrison said. The main difference, he added, is that a manager will have no authority to rein the council in or focus its attention on common goals.

“The single biggest problem with the council-manager form is that it won’t have the central focus for government that we desperately need,” Harrison said.

Fortner said eliminating the mayor position will spread power among the seven-member council, making government more accountable and transparent.

“We’ve outgrown the utility of a small town mayor,” he said.

Harrison countered that Bainbridge, which became a city in 1991, hasn’t matured to the point that the council will act on an shared vision.

Noting the council’s recent record of divisiveness and a history of indecisiveness, Harrison said the city needs a mayor to rein in the council and focus its attention on common goals.

The council, he said, “has a lot of dreams and a lot of schemes, but not a lot of vision.”

A majority of island voters choose a particular candidate for mayor because they agree he or she represents a shared set of values, such as the protection of open space and a vibrant downtown, he said.

Fortner said the island’s recent electoral track record gives him little faith that voters will have qualified candidates in future races. He pointed to the last council general election, in which two council members were elected unopposed, and the lone candidate for the November mayoral election.

“My goodness, having unopposed seats is not a worthy testament to our level of democracy,” he said. “And we don’t have people lining up to be mayor.”

Former councilman Bob Scales is the only person to officially declare candidacy for mayor. Mayor Darlene Kordonowy has yet to decide if she’ll run, and will likely wait until the results of the May 19 election.

Harrison said islanders should encourage and support candidates in the current system rather than dismantle it in the hopes that a new form of government will ease the city’s troubles.

The notion that a council-manager government will bring a “new age of collegiality” smacks of “irrational exuberance,” Harrison said, and is an unfair expectation to place on the council.

While the council will have more power under the manager form, some in the audience wondered if the council may gain too strong of a position.

“When the council passes some stupid ordinance that can’t be enforced or there’s no money to enforce it, who’s going to veto it?” asked Frank Vibrans, who was a mayor of Winslow before it incorporated into Bainbridge.

Fortner said a city manager has no authority over the council, but he or she can “nudge and nurture the council not to make stupid decisions,” especially if that manager has the respect of the council.

Eliminating the mayor position, he added, tends to have a “maturing affect on councils” as they come to terms with increased authority and responsibility.