Council aims to improve image

With a new mayor and a pair of new councilors, the Ashland City Council hopes to heal the damage to its image caused last year when it was branded "dysfunctional" and made national news for getting $37,000 worth of what many observers referred to as "group therapy."

Tuesday's election saw the trouncing of Councilor Cate Hartzell, who "became the focus" of the charges around the council's dysfunctionality, said Don Laws, now retired after many years as a council member and Southern Oregon University political science professor.

"It's obvious that the negative publicity Cate received gradually built up and raised doubts in people's minds," Laws said. "People voted against her because they hoped the council would work better than it did. The counseling did make them much more effective but still it got that reputation for being dysfunctional and they couldn't seem to get their work done."

Councilor Alice Hardesty, who chose not to run this time, said Hartzell was ousted because of a "negative smear campaign" by the political action committee, the League of Ashland Voters, and by anonymous postings on newspaper Web sites.

"The council will miss Cate's experience, institutional memory and good judgment about a lot of things she's been working on for many years," said Hardesty. "Meetings may go more quickly and certain members will be pleased."

Hardesty said the charges of dysfunctionality were "an exaggeration" and came from people who didn't watch meetings.

"There were blowups, but that's ancient history. After the training, that stopped. The council has been quite efficient in recent months," Hardesty said.

Former mayor Alan DeBoer said the new council, led by Mayor-Elect John Stromberg, "is well balanced and will be a great council.

"They are people who can make decisions and respect employees." DeBoer added. "The city staff can feel comfortable working with them."

Stromberg, chairman of the Planning Commission, topped a field of six mayoral candidates with 40.3 percent of the vote. Councilor Russ Silbiger was leading challenger Pam Vavra, 46.6 to 45.82 percent this morning. SOU lecturer Carol Voisin, a former congressional nominee, won an empty seat with 78 percent of the vote.

New and present members lavished praise on their counterparts and promised harmony, respect and effective action with each other as they face the city's challenges, chief of which, they said, are economic development, energy sustainability and hammering out a leaner budget in a troubled economy.

"Voters expect us to work together in a new way, not simply representing our different positions and fighting," said Stromberg, who brings 27 years of experience as an organizational and management consultant, much of it with Wells Fargo and Pacific Bell.

Stromberg said he hopes council meetings, which have greatly expanded in the past decade, will "pass more quickly and be more meaningful for everyone. I've got to work that out with the council."

While he has management and organizational experience, Stromberg said, "The council is not a group of people to be herded around. It's collaborative, not controlling and regulating. You allow their gifts to come through as a team. If we can do that, meetings are going to be good."

The council in past years faced charges of micromanagement of department heads by council members, with a large number of managers leaving their jobs.

Stromberg said, "We're going to have no problem with so-called micromanagement. We're going to work together very well."

Coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum — and having opposed each other for a council seat two years ago — Councilor Eric Navickas and Medford policeman Greg Lemhouse (who defeated Hartzell Tuesday) pledged amity on the council.

"I hope to work together with him because we have common goals in economic development, which we need to focus on for diversity of classes, ages and income levels in Ashland," said Navickas.

Lemhouse said, "I expect to get along with him fine. I will respect him and do what's best for the town."

He rejected charges during the campaign that he's a "get tough" police officer.

"I've supported community policing all my career — and my role is as a city councilman, not a policeman on the city council," Lemhouse said.

About the charges of micromanagement of staff by council members, Lemhouse said, "There needs to be healing. It's going to be a team effort, with the council leading instead of managing. If we do, you will see a turnaround. Management of department heads is the city administrator's job."

Hardesty praised newcomer Voisin, who won her vacated seat, as someone who "sees eye-to-eye with me" and "will not produce much difference" from Hardesty's positions. Councilor David Chapman said, "I like the way Voisin thinks, pretty analytical "¦ someone who will listen and decide, rather than bring preconceived notions."

Chapman said the dispute over the Mount Ashland expansion was the major divisive force on the council and, without that, the new council will be more efficient. Like several other council members, Chapman said he welcomed the new mayor's leadership with his visions, especially around sustainability for the city.

Silbiger lauded the makeup of the new council, noting that he's "real comfortable with them and we should have a good working relationship.

"There's a wider range of beliefs, but everyone should be able to work together."

Silbiger pointed out the council's increasing work load, saying he hopes meetings can be made shorter. He noted that council members "get overwhelmed" with study session materials and should get information sooner and be up to speed on issues before such meetings.

Stromberg is retired and said he will consider the mayor post a full-time job, but cautioned that, because of time demands, the city may eventually have to look at paying elected officials. They are now volunteer posts, with expenses paid.

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