Inflammatory emails released by the city pursuant to a Public Records Act request reveal behind-the-scenes strategizing and advocacy among some Utility Advisory Committee (UAC) members, frequent emails about city business from UAC Chair Arlene Buetow to certain council members’ personal email addresses, testy exchanges between Buetow and City Manager Doug Schulze, and scorching criticisms by Buetow of city staff, UAC colleagues and citizens with whom she did not agree.
Buetow assumed the chairmanship of the UAC in March of 2012 and is now running for Bainbridge city council.
Under her leadership, the UAC’s mission has expanded well beyond the scope of the city’s UAC ordinance. She regularly emailed council persons Sarah Blossom, Steven Bonkowski, David Ward and/or Debbi Lester at their personal email addresses, with extensive comments on utility issues. Those four council persons often vote as a bloc on a variety of contested issues. When they were running for council, Ward, Blossom and Bonkowski were critical of the city’s management of utilities. Their candidacies were supported by the Ratepayers Alliance, a group that sued the city in 2009 over utility issues. Sally Adams, secretary of the Ratepayers Alliance, was occasionally included as a recipient of Buetow emails.
Except for routine matters like scheduling and a thank-you note to Anne Blair, Ms. Buetow did not include council persons Bob Scales, Kirsten Hytopoulos or Anne Blair in the emails produced to me.
UAC ordinance ignored
By city ordinance, BIMC 2.33, the sole power of the UAC is to “act in an advisory capacity to the city council” about utility issues.
The ordinance expressly prohibits the UAC from interfering with staff, as follows:
“The committee shall not supplant administrative advice on policy issues to the city council, but shall be in addition to staff advice. The committee shall not interfere with the administrative staff functions involving day to day operations of the city utilities.” BIMC 2.33.040.
The emails reveal that Buetow’s beliefs about her role and that of the UAC are at odds with the authority and limits set forth in the law. As she wrote to Anne Blair in June of 2012, “I applied to serve …[on the UAC]…because of my heart felt belief that the City’s Utility Rate Payers should have an advocate on the UAC.” [emphasis supplied]
At the core of her UAC leadership is an unapologetic, aggressive advocacy for the divestiture or outsourcing of management of the city’s utilities, regardless of contrary data or the opposing views of city staff, dissenting UAC members or other citizens in the community.
An email she wrote to Ward, Bonkowski and Blossom last December 21 lays bare her way of doing business on the UAC. With a subject line “it has been a year already and so little progress” (a likely reference to how long the three council persons had been in office), the email reads in its entirety [emphasis supplied]:
This is the reason you need to take action now if you still hold your beliefs. Do not let staff and city mgr drag this out. If a cost comparison will not yield your desired result because City continues to believe they need to micromanage the utility no matter who manages them than you just need to say enough. We are prepared to make a decision now. UAC will cooperate to that end if you just tell me what you need.
Happy New Year
Our next meeting is Jan 2
The demand for immediate and specific action with respect to the water utility, coupled with a promise to deliver the UAC’s cooperation in achieving it, seems well beyond the scope of the authorizing ordinance that sets forth a clear directive to advise the entire council rather than lobby select sympathetic council members. The email also denigrates administrative advice that staff and the city manager might give, subverting the ordinance’s requirement that the UAC “shall not” supplant such advice.
Divisiveness and interference with staff
In March of 2012, Ms. Buetow sent an email to the personal email addresses of Sarah Blossom and Debbi Lester, providing her comments on the city’s Comprehensive Water and Sewer Plans. Throughout the document, she made disparaging references to the former Public Works Director, Lance Newkirk. She also suggested that city staff dishonestly overstates the amount of work necessary for the city’s water utility, writing (caps are in the original email):
“ALTHOUGH SINCE CITY STAFF HAS EVERY REASON TO MAKE WORK FOR THE WATER UTILITY AT THIS TIME IN EFFORT TO INFLUENCE THE FUTURE AND MAINTAIN CONTROL OF THE UTILITY AS LONG AS POSSIBLE, I AM CONFIDENT THEY COULD AND WOULD SEND SIGNALS THAT MORE THAN IS TECHNICALLY NEEDED SHOULD BE DONE. THEY HAVE EVERY INCENTIVE TO TAKE THIS APPROACH GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY AND LACK OF OVERSIGHT.”
In June of 2012, she criticized the “ineptitude” of the “current public works leadership.”
In July of 2012, she sent to Dave Ward and Sarah Blossom an email wondering why staff had prepared an “unsolicited report” about the city’s Water Quality Flow Monitoring Program which, in her words, amounted to “grandstanding and marketing.”
In January of 2013, she wrote to Ward, Bonkowski, Lester, Blossom and UAC member Eric Turloff that it was “very disconcerting to say the least” that Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith provided an analyses of the city’s RFP for water utility management to Schulze and the UAC before Buetow thought she should have. “I am concerned that Doug is giving his staff too much latitude and independence and too little direction,” she wrote. “If he persists in this pattern,” she continued, “I have no confidence that he or his staff will cooperate in efforts to reconcile the varying perspective/analysis of the true cost of maintaining an outsourced water utility.”
The relationship between Schulze and Buetow was growing tense by then. In February of 2013, when Schulze had been on the job only three months, Buetow wrote to him, complaining that “financial activity availed to the UAC is more like a game of cat and mouse than a collaborative activity.”
Schulze replied, “ My goal is to create a transparent, responsive and effective local government. The biggest obstacles I have encountered at this point are related to the ‘gottcha game’ some individuals in the community are persistently playing and the reaction from staff of being reluctant to share information.” He continued:
“UAC members must be committed to working with staff and me to exchange ideas, explain or answer questions and improve. If UAC members are going to take the information and use it to strategize or attack staff we will all fail. Everyone involved must have good intentions. No hidden agendas or undeclared motives.”
Around the same time, Buetow complained to Blossom that the UAC cannot effectively oversee the utilities, which the City has neglected or mismanaged. She accused the city of having a “protectionist, holier than Thou attitude ever since annexation that no one except them can do things right, that cost does not matter, and that big brother knows best.” [emphasis supplied]
In March of 2013, she wrote to Debbi Lester that she had not found conversations with City Manager Schulze “to be at all productive” and did not want to talk any further with him on the topics of flow monitoring and water management without a strategy for doing so. Instead she suggested that she and Lester have a private discussion about the issues. Also in March, she wrote to Ward, Blossom, Lester and Bonkowski with numerous critical questions about the city’s utility cost allocation model, and concluded, “I do not think you will be able to define the changes required without undertaking that work and making serious reorganization in City ranks.”
When Schulze released his report last month, recommending against the proposed management agreement with the KPUD to manage the city water utility, Buetow send an email to Sarah Blossom attaching the report, with the subject line: “What a surprise! ! !! Not!”
In addition to being vocal in her complaints about city staff and management, she undermined members of the UAC who disagreed with her views. She sent several emails complaining about fellow UAC member Randal Samstag. Samstag had voted with the UAC majority in 2011 in its recommendation that the water utility be retained by the city for 18 months, to give it time to become competitive with the Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD). Buetow wrote the minority report on the recommendation.
In February of 2012 Samstag, an engineering consultant with sewer expertise, became the subject of a UAC dispute about a possible conflict of interest because of his firm’s interest in bidding on city work. Following the procedure set forth in the city’s Ethics Ordinance, Samstag disclosed the conflict and voluntarily recused himself from any vote on matters related to the conflict. Also in accordance with the Ethics Ordinance, the UAC voted that he need not recuse himself from discussions about sewer matters until the UAC took up the work his firm might bid on. Buetow nevertheless objected behind the scenes, describing to the four council members how she had discussed the matter with former councilman Bill Knobloch, saying, “No one else on the committee seems to think it’s a problem and I do.” She sent another email to Debbi Lester and Sarah Blossom, outlining various additional criticisms of Samstag, mostly related to his support of city staff.
In February of 2012, she sent a letter to Dave Ward and Sarah Blossom with a draft of an email (which was not sent) in which she blasted former UAC Chair Dan Mallove for berating her in meetings (disclosure: Mallove is my husband, and I was at one of the alleged “berating” meetings. For a time when he was the chair, he asked her at every meeting whether she had filed her conflict of interest disclosure form, required by the city’s Ethics Ordinance. Although she joined the UAC in 2009, she refused to file the form until mid-2012, saying that the ordinance required the filing of the form only upon appointment or re-appointment to the UAC. Since she didn’t file it upon appointment, she said she didn’t have to file it until she was re-appointed to the UAC. She finally filed the form in June of 2012, upon her re-appointment, and at that time she indicated she had no conflicts. Mallove and Buetow also disagreed over the way the UAC addressed the Samstag conflict of interest.)
In October of 2012, she lobbied against an applicant to the UAC because she thought UAC colleague Andy Maron—who had also voted for retaining the water utility—was in favor of the applicant. Maron, she wrote, was “pushing to get his buddy…another home rule advocate, non customer on the committee.” In another email, she suggested that the applicant would be “A Peter’s [sic] clone or at a minimum a back voice for Peter’s”–a reference to former councilman Barry Peters, who served on the UAC as an ex officio member, and advocated for keeping the city’s water utility. She even sent out a Kitsap Sun article about the death of Norm Wooldridge–a civic leader, former council person and home rule advocate–pointing out that the applicant was noted to have been a cycling buddy of Mr. Wooldridge.
In fact, Buetow worked to eliminate opposing points of view from the UAC. The UAC ordinance provides that the UAC must be made up of seven to nine members. Due to several resignations from the committee, membership dipped to five last fall. In October of 2012, Buetow argued in emails to the personal email addresses of Blossom, Ward and Bonkowski that the two vacancies should either be filled by two applicants who had been publicly vocal about their desire to outsource the water utility, or that the council should decline to fill the vacancies until the following June when, she wrote, the vacancies would be filled during the annual appointment period. In February of this year, Buetow proposed to Blossom that the UAC number be “bumped back” to five members “to limit the polarization we have experienced when we went up to a larger committee in the year gone by.” [emphasis supplied]
Open public meetings violations
The UAC ordinance requires that “Meetings shall be open to the public.” BIMC 2.33.060. Last week Interim city attorney Jim Haney confirmed that the UAC is subject to the state Open Public Meetings Act, pointing to the UAC ordinance requiring public meetings.
In a memo written in October of 2012, Buetow worried about the applicability of the OPMA, writing, “Should I be concerned? Do we need to discontinue any side meetings until we get another opinion?” Buetow’s October memo seems to indicate that a quorum of UAC members may have been meeting in violation of those laws, an issue about which Buetow had enough knowledge to become concerned. For more on the open government issues, and Mr. Haney’s advice on commissions and committees, read my article here.
BIMC 2.33.060 also requires that UAC minutes and records be kept: “The committee shall keep a record of its meetings, transactions, findings and determinations.” Nevertheless, under Buetow’s leadership, the UAC didn’t file any minutes since October of 2012 until last month, when Buetow submitted minutes of the June meeting at which Steven Bonkowski’s controversial reforms to the city’s water utility were reviewed. On several occasions during her tenure as chair, Buetow wrote emails complaining that the UAC had no staff support and therefore could not keep minutes. The ordinance, however, makes no exception for lack of staff support. In December of 2010, former city manager Brenda Bauer sent a memo to the city’s commissions and committees with notice that city budget cuts meant staff would no longer be provided. The memo advised that the groups would need to keep their own minutes, and would be responsible for forwarding them to the city for posting and records retention.
The minutes of the UAC’s December 7, 2010 meeting contain the following paragraph:
“Both Dan Mallove and Arlene Buetow expressed their desire to be elected co-chair of the committee. Chair Ward reminded the committee that because staff assistance would be drastically reduced in 2011, the vice-chair position would be responsible for more secretarial-in-nature duties such as note taking and agenda building.” Mallove was elected chair at that meeting, and Buetow, vice-chair. The UAC regularly filed minutes until Mallove resigned in March of 2012.
After Buetow took over as chair, minutes were seldom filed. No minutes at all were filed from October of 2012 until the June 17, 2013 supplementary meeting.
Judging from the emails that have been produced to me, Beutow is a prolific, behind-the-scenes emailer about city business. I have made a Public Records Act request for all records she has involving the conduct of the UAC. Though I’ve received various UAC work plans and meeting minutes, she has not, to my knowledge, produced any of her emails as yet.
Buetow is currently running for the Central Ward council position. Her character and ethics, her ability to work with others and listen to multiple points of view, and her suitability as council person on an already divided council should be viewed in light of her past conduct in government service on the UAC.
Many of the Buetow emails discussed in this article are linked in pdf format below. Note that some of the headers say the emails are from Sarah Blossom to Christine Brown, and are dated July 2, 2013. That header refers to the date when Ms. Blossom produced emails from her personal account to the city. For the original, dates, senders and recipients, scroll down to the forwarded emails themselves.
The format used by the city to provide public records on disc is not compatible with my system so these documents are hard to upload onto WordPress. Below are two key emails I copied and photographed, because I couldn’t get them into pdf. I will convert them as soon as I am able, so they are easier to read.