City Council gives high marks to trainer

Ashland City Councilors said training sessions to teach them how to work together more cooperatively and efficiently are paying off.

"They're excellent," said Councilor Kate Jackson of 's sessions with council members.

"He's made a lot of his own time available to meet with pairs of us as we're ready. Each one of us is responsible for knowing how to communicate better and hear each other out."

The City Council received widespread criticism from residents and drew national media attention after news broke in October that the city of Ashland would pay Kirschner $37,000 for five months of group and individual training.

Kirschner is the co-author of several best-selling books about how to deal with difficult people. Trained as a naturopathic physician, Kirschner began offering workshops on practitioner/patient communication and eventually began training programs for corporate clients such as Heineken, NASA and Starbucks Coffee Company.

Jackson said she believes that the money spent to train councilors will end up saving money across city of Ashland operations. For one, she said, the city may be better able to recruit and retain city employees.

In the past several years, the city has seen turnover in such key posts as the city administrator, planning director, city attorney, police chief and public works director.

On Oct. 16, the City Council made it through all the items on its packed agenda, had several unanimous votes and finished before the mandatory 10:30 p.m. stop time. The council's two most recent regular meetings included public hearings on controversial issues that attracted dozens of residents. With much of the meetings devoted to public testimony, the council did not finish its agenda either night.

But Councilors Jackson and Russ Silbiger said the council made many key decisions in an effective manner. One was adopting a set of council rules meant to improve councilors' relations with each other and city employees, Silbiger said.

On one rule, Silbiger proposed language, Councilor Cate Hartzell suggested a more streamlined approach, and the council voted unanimously to make the change.

"The last council meeting we adopted the council rules, which we had been struggling with internally for a year," Silbiger said. "We all seemed to be working together and helping to find the right words.

It seemed to be a fairly positive thing. It was certainly an indicator we're working together better as a council."

Councilors have had occasional flare-ups, as when Councilor Eric Navickas accused Councilor David Chapman of being disrespectful because Chapman began gathering up his papers five minutes before a meeting ended.

Kirschner said one way he will measure if the council is making progress is if they have fewer votes where three councilors oppose the other three councilors and Mayor John Morrison has to vote to break the tie. The mayor only votes to break ties under Ashland's city charter.

Navickas said he is seeing progress on that front.

"We're working toward a healthier political model, away from 3-3 votes, of coming to a decision where everyone feels comfortable," he said. "Instead of having the majority pushing, it's giving concessions toward the center. It might not be the best decision, but it brings everyone together. It's a much healthier model than when you have adversarial groups and the majority tries to get their way."

Despite the push toward cooperation, Navickas said he hasn't felt pressure to not engage in healthy debate.

"I don't think that's the focus of the counseling at all. The focus is on moving away from preconceived notions of each other," he said.

Kirschner said he doesn't want to stifle debate among councilors, but to help them understand that each person is elected and represents a segment of the community that deserves respect and representation.

"I tell them to be strong advocates and representatives of the things you care about. Come at it with intelligence and understand that other councilors have a piece of the puzzle," he said.

Kirschner said he has developed affection and admiration for all the council members. He called them deep thinkers who study hundreds of pages of documents before each meeting to gain a solid understanding of complicated issues.

Kirschner said the City Council has been attacked in the press and on Internet message boards where people can anonymously post despicable, mean-spirited comments.

"If citizens of the community want people to step up in the future, they should take care," he said.

"What's the incentive if you are just attacked?"

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit .

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