On June 5, after an extended break from blogging, I attended a city council meeting to hear discussion about a proposed agreement with Kitsap Public Utility District to manage the city’s water utility. Along with others in council chambers, I watched in disbelief as council member Steven Bonkowski jettisoned the agenda item we’d come to hear and instead made his own presentation about the utility. Although City Manager Doug Schulze was scheduled to discuss the contract, Bonkowski would not allow him to speak to the issues or defend himself from critical remarks Bonkowski made about his work.
Because the unorthodox maneuvering seemed orchestrated with several council colleagues ahead of time, I was curious about the preparation that had gone into Mr. Bonkowski’s presentation. I was particularly interested in the input he had received from the city’s Utility Advisory Committee (UAC). I went to the city’s website to look at UAC minutes, and learned that none had been submitted since October of 2012. As a result, I made requests under the state’s Public Records Act for documents relating to the city’s utilities and the UAC. As the city began producing installments of responsive records, I realized some council persons were receiving a lot (so far, over a hundred) of emails about city business at their private email addresses. I also saw that UAC Chair Arlene Buetow was the author of many of those off-the-grid emails.
I wrote in a previous post about the records I’d received to that point. I’ve also written a piece for Inside Bainbridge, which I’ve posted on Bainbridge Notebook as well. Last week, I posted an article about advice concerning the state Open Public Meetings Act, given at the July 24 council meeting by Interim city attorney Jim Haney.
Contrary to accusations by Buetow supporters, I did not make these records requests to dig up unflattering information on Arlene Buetow, who is currently a Central Ward candidate for city council.
Unfortunately, that is what I found.
Reading these emails has made me heart sick. They reflect a persistent disrespect and hostility toward city staff, citizen volunteers, council persons, the city, the democratic process and even, horrifyingly, the recently deceased.
Some emails reveal violations of city policy and ordinances, if not state law. Others indicate a practice by some of our leaders of communicating privately on important city issues, cutting out the public, and council persons or committee members with whom they do not agree. Most land in a gray area—offensive but not necessarily unethical or illegal.
I’ll be highlighting some of the emails in an article I hope to post later today. Writing this stuff has been the hardest thing I’ve done in local politics since the Bainbridge Buzz outed Will Peddy and his fake resume. I honestly don’t want to cause pain by exposing embarrassing or unethical behavior, even though all of it is in the public record. I also don’t relish the possible retaliation on the Trippwire and its ilk. So I’ve had a lot of angst and soul-searching about whether and what to write.
But in the end, I’ve realized these public records are an important window on the kind of governing that has gone on too often in the last eighteen months: staff bashing, suspicion of those outside one’s political circle, dogged pursuit of pre-set agendas, and efforts to sandbag or eliminate opposition. This is not good governance. One can be an effective leader without undermining city employees and opposing parties, without secret planning and legislating by surprise, without acting as if rules, laws and courtesy are a nuisance and entirely optional.
The city’s Governance Manual, which was adopted as a legislative act by a unanimous council in 2010, enunciates strong policies of open and transparent government, collaboration among city staff and council, and leading and reasoning together. State law strongly favors open government as well.
In my opinion, many of these principles have been ignored by certain members of city council and the UAC.
A few commenters on my previous posts have argued that people should focus on the council’s and the UAC’s accomplishments on utility issues, instead of the process they use to get there. Implicit in that argument is that the end result is the only thing that matters, not whether you followed the rules or how you treated people along the way. I couldn’t disagree more. We are a nation of laws and rules. Without that, there is no democracy.
And without our democratic process—which means debating, dissenting, arguing, governing openly and transparently, and accepting the fact that you will not always get your way—what are we left with? Might makes right? The sneakiest rule-bender wins the day? Whatever you can get away with? Local government is a cornerstone of our democracy and for most of us, the only place where we can have meaningful participation. If we aren’t governing well on the local level, what hope do we have on the larger stage, where bigger money and more power are added to the mix?
I want to address another issue that has been raised about my motivations for writing about Arlene Buetow. My husband, Dan Mallove, served on the UAC with her for several years. They did not see eye-to-eye on many issues.
But I don’t write about people simply because a member of my family disagrees with them or even because I don’t like them. I write about someone when I believe they are in the public eye, shaping government policy and their actions are newsworthy. Arlene Buetow chairs one of the most influential and controversial committees in the city. She is also running for office. Her temperament, points of view and behavior while doing city business are highly relevant, both to the position she now holds and the one for which she is seeking your vote.
I do agree with one accusation made against me: this is political. Yes, it certainly is. Our city council members are politicians. The UAC Chair not only heads up one of the most political committees in the city but is running for political office–a seat on the city council. By definition this falls squarely into the political sphere. For the record, I have never met her opponent in the council race, know very little about him and have nothing to do with his campaign.
The article I am posting later today is Arlene Buetow in her own words. You can read it and judge for yourselves.