Brad Bonkowski: Lessons learned as a Carson City supervisor
It has been my pleasure to serve as Carson City Ward 2 Supervisor for the past eight years, and as your Acting Mayor since Mayor Bob Crowell’s unexpected passing this past September. I was fortunate to have served my years as Supervisor with the best mayor Carson City has known. Of all the lessons learned from him, humility was the greatest. Mayor Bob never took credit for any of the remarkable accomplishments he oversaw during his almost twelve years serving, choosing instead to highlight the many hands and tremendous hard work of staff and caring citizens it truly takes to get something meaningful done in this town, at this time. I will pass the gavel to our first female mayor, Lori Bagwell, on January 4 and she is more than capable of being an exceptional Mayor. She also knows the importance of acknowledging the team that gets the good work done, of which she may be the leader but is only one of many important voices.
I chose to take the Supervisor role on because it was one I felt I could do well, and just as it is crucial for every citizen to vote – to exercise their civic duty to the best of their ability – I feel it is crucial for every citizen to serve their community at some point in their lives. I never took the position on as a new career, I always intended to serve only one or two terms. I have found that politics at every level is now so partisan and/or divisive that it is difficult to serve more than that and come out with your sanity intact.
For what it is worth, this is what I have learned in the non-partisan Ward 2 Supervisor seat:
- Know how to count to three. The Board of Supervisors is made up of five equally important votes. One vote gets nothing done…every time. A vote of three is what’s needed in every case. It is only by working with other Board members that anything truly meaningful gets done. A single, narcissistic, righteous voice on the Board accomplishes nothing of import, but is a distraction from doing what is best for the community. This is not the same as saying the Board members should always agree on every issue, because they don’t and shouldn’t.
- Always do the right thing. In any vote, about half of the constituents want purple and the other half want yellow. If I only listened to one camp or the other, or if I made decisions based on who was asking for favors at any particular moment, I do not think I would have been able to make good decisions. If I always did the thing that best served the greatest number of citizens, whether it was best for me or not, I knew I was doing the right thing.
- Do not take anything personally. Most people see issues through the glasses of “what is best for me”. It is rare that folks can acknowledge that the best option for the city, or for the majority of its inhabitants, may not be what is best for them. I had citizens who told me they agreed with my last one hundred votes, but when I voted contrary to what they wanted ONCE they thought I should be recalled. It is not realistic to believe you will ever see a candidate who votes with your views 100% of the time.
- Acknowledge staff. Carson City is lucky to have some of the best people on staff in the most crucial roles. Are they perfect? No, and neither am I. But the lion’s share of Carson City employees, from our city manager, to the department heads, to the extraordinary individuals filling the hundreds of positions required to make this city run well, are truly hard-working, exceptional and care deeply about Carson City. They continually make the Board members look good when the truth is, we just state what we want to see done and we do not have to do the hard job, which is the implementation.
- There is no place for partisanship at the local level. It will not serve you, and more importantly, it does not serve the citizens of Carson City. As a Board member, you represent every member of the community, whether you agree with them or not, rather than just the D’s or R’s, or Independents. Leave partisanship for the State and Federal politicians.
- The State government is often working against local municipalities. Especially in a budget shortfall, if the state government decides to sweep our accounts, or push down unfunded mandates, they have the power. Even on issues we should be aligned on, it is wise to remember at the end of the day, we rarely control our own destiny.
- Most issues are far more complicated that they appear. It is easy to envision an issue as “right” or “wrong”, but that is naïve. Most issues come down to dozens of important variables or potential outcomes, and often the “right” vote is the one that is “mostly right” or “least wrong”.
- The cost of services. It is easy to say the Board should never pass on increasing costs to provide services such as water, sewer, storm drainage, employee salaries and benefits, facilities maintenance or road maintenance. That is how I thought when I took office. However, the only way a local government can sustain itself is to budget conservatively, watch expenses, make appropriate choices in the level and quality of services, and to implement cost recovery. I will not miss citizens telling me to repair the roads while simultaneously telling me that they do not want higher fuel taxes. Those statements are diametrically opposed to one another. If you want clean water, toilets that flush, precipitation that does not flood the city, infrastructure that is maintained and roads that do not have potholes, you will have to pay the cost of those services. That is reality, no matter how painful that may be. I have not been able to come up with a more realistic solution.
Eight years in public office is enough for me. I have served to the best of my ability, often to the detriment of my business and family. I have grandchildren who want my time more than the citizens of this amazing town need it. I leave you in capable hands with the few words of advice above. Thank you to Carson City for having provided me with the opportunity to serve, and to grow personally in a way I was able to share with my children and grandchildren.