Council debates issue of influence

The Ashland City Council is struggling with how to stop individual councilors from having too much influence over city employees, while safeguarding their rights as elected representatives to advocate their positions.

On Tuesday night, Mayor John Morrison broke a tie and joined three councilors in voting to strike language from a proposed rule that would have required councilors to limit individual contacts with city employees "so as not to influence staff decisions and recommendations."

Instead, councilors are directed not to "pressure or direct" city employees in ways that contravene the will of the council, limit council options, interfere with staff work performance or undermine the authority of staff supervisors.

Morrison joined Councilor Alice Hardesty &

who proposed the language change &

and Councilors Cate Hartzell and Eric Navickas on the vote. Councilors David Chapman, Kate Jackson and Russ Silbiger were against the change.

Morrison said the entire council has been wrestling with the word "influence" because it has a range of positive and negative definitions.

"All of us want to feel that what we say will be influential"&

166;. What we're trying to do is get rid of undue influence," he said.

Resident Ralph Temple agreed that language banning councilors from influencing city employees would have gone too far. In a democracy, he said elected representatives have a duty to advocate for constituents.

"I want you advocating on my behalf. Some of you will see things as I do. Others will see as others of the community see," said Temple, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union who was speaking for himself and not the organization that night.

But some councilors said too much lobbying and pressuring is going on behind closed doors when individual councilors meet with city employees, especially department heads.

Councilor David Chapman said discussions should take place in public meetings, not one-on-one in private between a councilor and staff member.

"All six of us should not be going in to lobby department heads. It should happen here," he said.

In arguing that the word "influence" should have been kept in the rule language, Councilor Russ Silbiger voiced similar sentiments that discussions should be public.

"I think 'influence' is the right word. It's what we're doing wrong," he said.

Councilors will continue discussions about new rules meant to limit their sway over city staff and ensure that each councilor has time to comment during public meetings. Oregon law already bars more egregious forms of influence and coercion.

Also Tuesday night, the council held the first part of a public hearing about Verde Village, a proposed subdivision near the Dog Park. Property owners Greg and Valri Williams hope to develop the land with environmentally friendly cottages and homes, with an area set aside for affordable townhouses.

The development requires a land swap of a portion of the couple's property with a piece of city-owned land.

The hearing will continue at the next regular council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

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