City seeks input on public works director post

The city of Ashland is not excluding citizens from participating in the public works director selection process as some groups have claimed, city officials said.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said there will be public involvement as the city searches for someone to replace Paula Brown, who retired as public works director in December 2007. Brown has been working part time for the city to finish projects.

"We expect to have it. We assume public involvement," Bennett said on Thursday.

The controversy began on Wednesday when government watchdog Art Bullock and eight other local residents sent a letter to the mayor and the Ashland City Council claiming that the process to hire a new public works director "provides for no citizen participation whatsoever." They also sent out a press release. The residents represented groups that included Ashland Elders, the Jackson County Green Party and Peace House.

In their letter, the residents asked that once the job applicants are narrowed down, the remaining candidates be interviewed by citizen panels and also answer citizen-written questions on Rogue Valley Community Television.

Residents were on interview panels and candidates spoke on television during the selection process that led to the hiring of Police Chief Terry Holderness in February 2007.

Bennett said the City Council will discuss the public works director hiring process at its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19. But citizens will probably be involved on interview panels. Whether interviews are televised will depend largely on the number of finalists, she said.

An hour-long televised panel interview with six finalists wouldn't work, but it could be effective with a smaller number. In addition to consulting with residents, city officials will probably bring in someone from an outside jurisdiction who is in the public works field, Bennett said.

The city is looking to hire a civil engineer who is familiar with transportation, water, sewer and storm-drain systems.

"It's an important position. The public works director has the biggest share of the city budget because of the utilities. Except for public safety, public works also has the largest staff," Bennett said.

In their letter asking for public involvement, the residents said the public works director is responsible for many infrastructure projects that generate large taxpayer-funded debts.

"This position should be reviewed by citizens to ensure we select a person who understands citizens' perspectives and is responsive to them," the residents wrote.

They complained that the city is spending thousands of dollars on a recruiting firm that "rejects the concept of community participation," and that the money should not be spent if the city hires from within.

City of Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray said Bobbi Peckham from the Sacramento-based search firm Peckham McKenney received 18 applications, none of which came from city employees. Peckham will narrow down the list of candidates and present those names to the City Council, which will probably involve community members and stakeholders in an interview panel process.

Finalist interviews are tentatively scheduled for Feb. 29, Bennett said.

The city used the same firm to recruit a public works director and a city attorney for a combined fee of $32,000, plus up to $14,000 for expenses, Gray said.

The mayor and City Council chose to promote Assistant City Attorney Richard Appicello to become city attorney.

Mayor John Morrison said he wants to have some degree of public participation in the public works director's selection, but he and the City Council will have to decide whether citizens will sit on interview panels and whether there will be a televised interview.

"Unlike the police chief and city administrator, which are high-profile positions and require a lot of interaction with the public, the public works director is far more technical," he said. "The emphasis in the interviews will be on technical expertise."

Ralph Temple, speaking on behalf of the residents who wrote the letter, said the news that city officials plan to allow citizen involvement is "very welcome."

He said the residents saw a public works director recruitment brochure that described the hiring process, but that it did not mention any public involvement.

He said they have felt that city officials previously showed little regard for citizen input when they promoted Appicello to be city attorney in December 2007 and promoted Bill Molnar to be community development director in October 2007 without involving the public in those decisions. The residents feared the public would be left out again.

Temple said the public works director is in a pivotal position regarding local improvement districts and other development issues.

Under Brown and Interim Public Works Director Jim Olson, the Public Works Department has encouraged the formation of local improvement districts, whereby neighbors and the city government share costs to add paving, sidewalks and storm drain gutters to streets.

Bullock, one of the residents who signed the letter, has fought the city in court over several local improvement districts.

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