Brenda Fantroy-Johnson – An In-Depth Community Conversation

Bainbridge Island City Council District 2 (North Ward) candidate (and current Mayor) Brenda Fantroy-Johnson recently sat down to answer 12 issue-and-policy-based questions with Chamber President Stefan Goldby ahead of the 2023 General Election. Recorded via Zoom as an individual 1-on-1 session, this interview is part of a series talking in depth to all five of this year’s candidates for Bainbridge Island’s City Council.

Each candidate was allotted up to 45 minutes to answer a set of questions written in consultation with Chamber members with expert knowledge of a specific local topic. Each conversation features the same questions being asked of all candidates, and in the interest of fairness, none of the candidates were shown any of the questions ahead of the interview session.

We hope that this format provides a chance for Islanders to see each of the prospective council members share their thoughts, potential solutions, and intended actions to remedy some of the big challenges facing the Bainbridge community in full, without interruption or editing.

Each of the candidate’s responses are presented here as polished transcriptions (edited for clarity and time), and also below as an unedited, unabridged video clip.

Read the full interview here below, or if you prefer to watch, simply jump straight to the video interview


Stefan Goldby (SG): I’d like to say hello to District 2 (North Ward) candidate, Brenda Fantroy-Johnson… thanks for being here, and could you describe your experience working with different stakeholders, such as businesses, community organizations, and residents?

Brenda Fantroy-Johnson (BFJ): I think it’s important to note that I was working with stakeholders before I became a council member, being appointed to this position, back in 2021. Before then I was on the Race Equity Task Force. Even before then I was an advocate for my neighborhood – the map your neighborhood preparedness program, I got into that real quick. So, working with the Race Equity Task Force, being a founding member of that, our primary purpose was to try to identify the stakeholders that we would be working with. We went through a large, specific targeting of people to try to find out who we could work with: We’ve worked with businesses when we were trying to get our welcome signs up, we wanted to have them posted in all of the downtown business offices. At one point, we even talked about having businesses as a safe place for anyone who needed it. We’ve worked with the businesses on that.

SG: What personally makes you want to be a city council member for the next four years?

BFJ: It’s amazing to me that I’m in this position. First of all, this was never anything I ever aspired to or dreamed of or set out to do. Because I am here, and the unorthodox way I feel like I’ve been put here. The benefits that I get are much greater than I think the work that I do. Mainly because I’ve been able to be a face for little girls and little boys who live on this island, who say to themselves and say to me, “Are you really the mayor?” They’ve never seen a black mayor before, or a black person in leadership before on this island.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to just about every school on the island to talk to students about civics and our form of government. They’re very interested. So personally, for me, it’s the hugs from the little kids. It’s the cards, it’s the paintings, it’s the mothers who are able to call me up and say, ‘Hey, my little girl would like to meet the Mayor’. You know, I’ve had ice cream with kids,  I’ve had interaction that’s way more exciting to me than going to the wastewater treatment plant and watching poo become clean water. I mean, that’s important, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t feel the same as a hug from a kindergartener [laughs].

SG: What would you say are the top three specific current concerns that you hear from Islanders?

BFJ: Currently, right at this moment, the issues that we are dealing with are the inns in our neighborhood centers. We’re also really knee-deep into sewer district seven. My favorite is affordable housing. When you say what are we dealing with right now, we’re always working toward affordable housing.

The things that we’ve been hearing about lately, is what we’re trying to do to register people for their Airbnbs and trying to make sure that everybody’s on the same playing field. You know, the wind can blow and the current issue will change. At some point, we’re going to be talking about signs downtown, and I expect that to be a big deal. I got an email the other day about trails. I encourage this, because every person who writes us or comes to public comment, that’s the issue that they’re dealing with, at this time. There will never be one issue for everybody to deal with, because that’s just not how it works.

Everybody understands where we are as far as affordability, and Bainbridge and affordable housing. Workforce housing will always be at the top until we can kinda try to get something on the books, that we can say, look, we are working toward this. And we can come up with a model that works for everybody to be satisfied.

SG: In the Winslow Subarea Plan and the Comprehensive Plan, we have a generational opportunity to plot the path forward for the next 20 years on the island.  What are the top three things that those documents must create for Bainbridge?

BFJ: We’ve already had surveys to tell us what our constituents think is most important. Housing is most important when we’re talking about workforce housing and senior housing; those are two things that we have to get right. We’re not getting any younger. We’re all getting very old. We all would love to stay and live on the island either that we were born on, or we just have so much love for where we are. We have to get those two things right.

Along with that comes transportation; we won’t be able to get around the way we’re used to getting around. The things that we’re doing to try to increase availability for transportation, and also decrease what we’re putting out into the atmosphere, we’re trying to electrify everything. We also need to have a way for seniors to get around in an electric vehicle or be able to rent one. We don’t want everybody driving. How do we entice the younger people to get on their bikes or to walk on the trails?

When we talk about building out the plan, all of our other plans come in line with the Comp Plan: The Sustainable Transportation Plan, and the Climate Action Plan all should be taken into concern when we’re doing the Comp Plan. That’s why we encourage people to come out when we had the workshops to tell us what it is you would like to see.

I know the Senior Center is also working on a plan of what Winslow should look like in the next 20 years. That’s good that we’re thinking about that, because the only way to build a great city is to think about it ahead of time. You can’t piecemeal it because then you get cities that are hard to get around in… it’s not very well done. We want to make sure that we’ve thought about it, it’s intentional. We have everybody concerned involved.

SG: If you could change one thing in our zoning code, what would it be?

BFJ: I’m not an expert on our code, but I would try to understand what’s stopping our builders or developers from being able to develop? We are so used to the way Bainbridge looks, that’s fine, we love the look and feel of it. If we’re going to take the recommendations of what’s happening for our Comp Plan, there’s two things that we’re either gonna have to do; we’re gonna have to expand the boundaries, or we’re gonna have to expand the heights of some of the buildings. We can do both of those in certain areas. No one wants Winslow, in particular, to have very tall buildings.

We can expand our boundaries and do this in other areas, like the High School Road district. I would caution that before leaping into changing anything, is trying to understand from our developers, how these things would help them – Would they be more inclined to build, if we were to change some of our codes or relax some of our our policies? I don’t think we should decide that, we need to have more information before we do so.

SG: Within the city’s Housing Action Plan, there is an almost-universal agreement that housing diversity and supply on the island must change for the sake of the community, but what kinds of housing do you think are most important and why?

BFJ: I think it’s important that we have some rental units; we don’t have enough rental units for our workplace housing. We have a lot of people who work on Bainbridge Island who provide services for us. At least a couple of them that I’ve dealt with would like to live here if they could afford to, but they come from Bremerton, just a long ways away, they’re coming from Seabeck.

When we’re building these workforce housing, like what we’re talking about doing in the future, as a city, we have to make sure that we’re not missing people. Not just low income, but maybe 80% [of Average Median Income or AMI]. Looking at different jobs to see what people can afford. And build to that. Not specifically AMI, but what kind of person who’s working two jobs – at Safeway, maybe one at the grocery store.  What can they afford to pay, how much should that rent be? We don’t want to leave out the ‘missing middle’ that people are always talking about.

We have people who maybe work over in Seattle, but they would like to live here – they’re over – like 120% AMI. The market usually takes care of those folks. But we have to make sure, like when we did our survey – what type of housing do we need specifically? We need to be practical when we think about who is actually going to move here. Looking into how do we tie it into people who actually want to live here and work here. How do we give them specific benefits to do that? Do we tie these units to them having to work here? There’s different methods that we can use. It’s a tall order, but it’s better for us to try to plan this than to have the state or someone else come in and decide for us.

SG: With more and more of the island’s workforce coming to work over the Agate Pass Bridge, how would you try to reimagine transportation on Bainbridge? You mentioned electrification, but what about car shares, buses, ferries, bike lanes, something else?

BFJ: We don’t want a four-lane highway coming to Bainbridge – that just kind of defeats our purpose, our sense of place. We like it quiet.

I think the work that they’re doing with the roundabouts may help us, but it also may divert people to the interior or arterial lanes and roads. I think what we have to work on is not trying to limit ourselves with what we’re doing. So everything I mentioned before – the bike lanes to trails – I would love to be able to ride my bike from where I live to downtown. They’re talking about that with the STO trail; I might be able to do that one day if I’m in a wheelchair…

I don’t imagine there is another thing that we can do other than electrifying the cars, making sure we have trails and bike lanes for people to use, making sure that we have buses that run every day and that those buses are electrified, and making sure there are specific electric vehicles for people who would like to rent those. For the seniors to have a BI Ride of their own that can get them around in an electric bus. Those are all the things we are trying to do that that would help our transportation. The STO, we’re still linking our important streets together and making sure that Safe Routes to Schools is working, so the kids can get to where they’re going.

I think we are doing all the things. We have it all written down on paper. We just have to do it all.

SG: More specifically, would you support a new Bainbridge-Bremerton ferry route to better connect North and South Kitsap?

BFJ: Of course I would. I know they’re looking at that. I would definitely be in support of that.

SG: How can the needs of both Bainbridge’s residents and visitors best be balanced?

BFJ: We need each other. First of all, we have to make sure we have the things the visitors want to see, and that there’s easy access to them. That comes with the transportation. Do we have transportation to the Japanese Memorial that we have so many visitors coming here to see? We have to make that easier access. They’re looking at that; I expect some of that to come forward to the council pretty soon.

What we have to make sure of is that our businesses can support the visitors that come. We’ve worked through the waste reduction issue, to where everybody understands that it’s a problem, but we’re working on it, and the businesses are on board with that. That reduces the angst that was happening for the business. We want to make sure that we keep the businesses happy, so that they can keep the visitors happy.

The islanders, we are excited when we see downtown buzzing. We have a nightlife. People come over specifically for the night market [Moonlight Market], specifically to get ice cream at the new ice cream place, they still come there. We have a world class museum and world class performing arts now, that people will be coming over for. I don’t know that there’s anything we’re not doing… well, there’s ideas out there that we need this grand symphony place – which I don’t agree with. Short of that, I think we’re doing all of the right things to keep the visitors happy.

The islanders, we hear from them when they’re not happy. We try our best to make sure we address each and every one of those issues. We have some council members that have office hours; we’re very approachable. People approach me all the time on the street and ask me questions. We make appointments with people, sit down and have coffee and discuss what their issues are, and try to get to the bottom of them.

I think this council that I’m on, and that I’m running for the next four years, we’ve come out of the darkness, per se, and into a more concerned light. We are concerned about what our islanders think and what they want, and how they want it. I’ve never lived in a place where that was more prevalent, where the governing body was so approachable. Even if we don’t agree, we do take time to listen. I think that’s all anyone would ever want is just to be heard so that their point can be addressed.

SG: Can you explain your understanding of the role of a city council member in promoting economic development?

BFJ: Specifically for the mayor… you know, it’s very important to understand what’s going on in the city and economically, and which businesses may be feeling they’re not getting the love they deserve. I know for a fact that if we work close with the Chamber, we can get information that a business may be thinking about leaving. Maybe try to figure out what we can do to encourage them to stay. Because economically, if we don’t have our businesses, we really don’t have a city.

I think it’s important that we’re out there promoting and supporting the business to encourage the islanders. In our announcements at our meetings what we’re doing… that we’re going to The Cider House, or we’re going to The Islander. We’re letting them know that we’re not just sitting up here on the dais – we’re islanders, just like everyone else. We’re out here eating at the restaurants and we’re buying local. I think whatever we can do, politically to support economic development, we are always open to hearing new ideas about starting new businesses like BI Ride. How can we help get grants for those types of things? I think we’ve been very supportive for economic development.

SG: What community role can the Chamber play to best help Bainbridge?

BFJ: You got your eye on the ball out there. You know what businesses are doing. We would not have gotten as far as we did with the waste reduction if we didn’t have the ambassadors, if we didn’t have the meetings, to talk to people to find out what the heartburn was, and how we could reduce the heartburn that they were going through.

Working with the Chamber, you’re one of those partners that I talked about earlier, that we have to have a consistent relationship with, if we’re going to continue to enjoy the economics that we have on the island. We have to be in good relations. That’s with all of our partners and all of our collaborations.

SG: Leaning into collaboration even more, what strategies do you intend to use to promote civic engagement and boost citizen participation in our local government?

BFJ: I’m gonna to keep going out to these schools because that’s who we need to talk to. That’s been on my mind since I’ve started with the council is, what are we doing to encourage our young people to be involved? After being asked to come to several different schools, I’ve talked with our Inclusion and Diversity Manager. My idea is to have tours for the kids to come down to City Hall and see what we do. Let’s have an event where they can come out and meet the mayor and come out and meet the council, ask us questions.

You’d be surprised some of the questions that the kids asked me, it was eye opening. I think that encourages them to then go home and tell their parents and encouraging their parents to be involved. I’ve seen this in action, I went to one classroom at Odyssey – the next thing I know, one little girl who wasn’t in that classroom, told her mother, “My class didn’t get to meet the mayor. Can you call the mayor up so I can meet her?” That’s what she did.

Through that… she’s a biracial child, she got introduced to other parents who are biracial because there was a textured hair event at Jonny Levi Studio… you do one thing over here, and it impacts five things over there. I would like to see more talk and action around what we’re doing for the kids on this island: All of them, not just the little kids, the high school kids, and how do we encourage them to stay? That’s the first thing kids want to do when they live somewhere, they say “I gotta get out of here.” How do we encourage them to stay or come back? To be involved in what’s going on in the city?

SG: Would you be in favor of getting citizen input via online surveys?

BFJ: I’m gonna say that depends on who’s conducting the survey.

SG: If the city conducted the survey…

BFJ: If the City conducted the survey… yes, I don’t want everybody out there giving me surveys. But yeah, I think that’s one good way to find out what the public thinks.

SG: If you received a million dollar grant to use for the city any way you wanted, what would you do with it, and why?

BFJ: I would do something that would be toward entertainment for kids, because they have nothing. They have nothing – that’s maybe too strong.The little kids can go to the museum, to KiDiMu. I took my grandson, it was years ago… now he’s 18. After you take them to KiDiMu, they grow up, and then where do you take them? Sure, they have a lot of activities at school. But there is no place for kids to just go and maybe let their hair down. I was in one city and there was an arcade that was virtual reality – there’s nothing like zombies coming after you in the virtual world! They really need something; that’s what I would spend it on.

SG: Back here in the real world with only limited time, money and resources to tackle the challenges of Bainbridge life, can you name three specific actions you intend to take as a council member that you hope will define the legacy of this four-year term of office?

BFJ: My main thing is to work with our Inclusion Manager to create a new way to do our cultural events: We’ve been kind of sporadic on that. We’ve had Race Equity Task Force doing some, and now we have all of these people who want to collaborate with us. My plan is to bring all of them together and have annual celebrations for any cultural event, not just Juneteenth, not just MLK, but all of the cultural diversity that we have on this island, I would like to have showcases for all of them. That’s that’s one thing.

I’m going to continue to be the cheerleader for workplace housing, affordable housing. I’m going to continue to do that, because that’s what I ran on. When it wasn’t a comfortable thing to talk about, I was talking about it, and I’m going to continue talking about it.

The third thing that I would like to leave as a legacy is something to do with the kids. Maybe I can get that money in. And if I can spark a fire under the rest of the Council, to get them to think the way I’m thinking about this, maybe we can see something develop. That’s the thing about being a council member, you’re only one council member, so you have to get a coalition of people to try to help you to bring forth an idea.

SG: Thank you for for spending the time with us today, thank you for stepping forward to try and help our community. In closing, with what words would you like to end today?

BFJ: Everybody always asked me, “What is it like to be the mayor? What is it like to be a council member?” I think it’s the most rewarding thing that you could ever do for any place that you live, because you are immersed in all of the activities that deal with the city. You’re immersed in all of the community issues, from the little bitty issues, to the very large ones.

It’s a form of service that if you’re the kind of person like I am, I just revel in being of service and it hurts me deeply when I can’t give the answer that someone really wants. Being there and listening is the closest I can come sometimes to giving somebody what they need.

If you’ve never done public service, please get involved, get on a committee go out and see what you can do to contribute. We have all types of committees, 17 different committees I think, on our website, and we’re always looking for members to come in and help with the with trying to decide who’s gonna get LTAC [Lodging Tax] funding, who’s gonna get Arts and Humanities [Cultural] funding. This is your tax money at work: It would be good if you were interested in where it was going…

SG: Good words to end on. And thank you, Mayor Brenda Fantroy-Johnson, for joining us for a community chat.

BFJ: Thank you. Thanks for all you do.

NOTE:  Transcript has been edited to reduce vocal repetition and improve clarity.
The uncut video is also included here, with all questions and answers (and any glitches or technical errors) intact.


Watch The Video:

Learn more about Brenda Fantroy-Johnson at her campaign website:

In a recent Bainbridge Review Interview:

To see more of the 2023 City Council Candidate Interviews, head back to the Chamber News homepage