Rancor. Personal attacks. Distrust. Frustration. Dysfunction. Any of these words, and at the same time all of them, can be applied to describe the tenor of city politics in Ashland these days. This is not conjecture, but actual description by both current and former city leaders and staff used to describe the current state of the city.
Yet beneath all of that resides a pervasive sense of optimism that flows from an abiding love for the city &
love for the beauty, the outdoor activities, the artistic and cultural opportunities, and even the politics.
Especially the politics. The political climate of Ashland is unique. The largely left-of-center populace stands in sharp contrast from the rest of Southern Oregon. Highly educated residents create a stronger sense of capability, and of possibility. Ashland residents are not afraid to aspire to things far beyond the ordinary. This is the political culture of Ashland. It also the culture that has gone so awry of late.
A breakdown at City Hall, particularly with councilors apparently driven by the agenda of special interest groups, has created costly turmoil and inefficiency, along with turnover within the city staff at an alarming rate.
Still, optimism for the future remains, as evident as the other words used to describe the city. Most city officials, particularly the members of the city council remain hopeful of progress.
The need for vision
STATE OF THE CITY: In four parts —
The resignation of Planning Director David Stalheim has increased the number of vacated city leadership positions to three. Coupled with on outpouring of criticism from residents over the council’s decision to undergo five months of professional training and counseling, public concern over the state of the city is high.
The Tidings conducted a two-week investigation into the workings of the council and its relationship to City Hall, presented here in four parts.
— : Ashland’s dysfunctional council: A series of interviews with former and current city leaders suggests the council is failing to operate effectively as a group. City staff is overwhelmed with the agendas of some individual members of the council. Stress is high and decison-making is low.
— : The resignation of David Stalheim is the tip of the iceberg for a planning department drifting far behind its revenue goals and swimming amid accusations of distrust and influence.
— : As the Ashland Police Department’s problem broke into public view in a well-publicized clash between officers, their chief and the city, turnover was rampant and morale was down. But a healing change came quickly with a new leader.
— : Several departments in the city face staffing and economic problems, including a frustrated fire department that has taken its appeal directly to voters and a two-person legal staff lacking a permanent leader.
Despite it all, the future does look promising as a new group of city leaders seeks to bring about lasting change.
A Jewish prophet warned, according to ancient religious texts, that without vision, the people will perish. If Ashland has lacked any one thing the past few years, it is vision, according to most city leaders.
"I think there should be a city visioning process &
where there's something that's done and tied back into the comprehensive plan," said outgoing Planning Director David Stalheim.
"There needs to be more trust between the community, council and staff," said former City Administrator Gino Grimaldi. "How you do that is probably a long-term process to build that trust."
The difficulty lies in whose vision for the future of Ashland will become the one that is codified in some fashion so as to truly have the power to shape future policy. Political division pits neighbor against neighbor so often that rarely do those on opposite sides of the political fence listen and understand what the other side truly wants.
Yet, the divided members of the council themselves are the ones who probably best understand how close the sides really are.
"We're all heading towards the betterment of Ashland in our own way," said Councilor David Chapman. "I mean, we're all interested in sustainability, controlling traffic; we're all interested in improving economic development, expanding the base of the city from tourism to include other stuff."
Those common goals are not lost on Stalheim despite his brief tenure at the helm of the city's most politically contentious department, the Community Development Center.
"The whole thing about sustainability," Stalheim said, "which is not only environmental but it's economic sustainability &
as I mentioned to the planning commission &
I think it's a very achievable goal for this community, to try to do that. Whereas, there's probably not many communities in the United States that could do that. And I think Ashland, if it got its act together and worked on those things, could do that and it would be pretty amazing to see."
Councilors Eric Navickas, Chapman and Alice Hardesty won the 2004 election touting these same goals. While specific programs or plans may draw plenty of consternation, the general concept of building a local economy that understands the issues of sustainability, protecting natural resources and promoting clean industry generally win approval from Ashland's population at large.
These philosophical agreements earned unanimous approval from members of the city council during its latest goal setting session. But putting these concepts into a practical reality, and effectively communicating that reality to the residents of the city have been obstacles too large to overcome on a broad scale.
As City Administrator Martha Bennett said, her strong relationship to the mayor could be the first step toward success.
"I have a really great working relationship with this mayor," she said, "and I really enjoy working with him. He's got to trust me on a day-to-day basis and I've got to trust his long-term vision."
Hope for the future
Ironically, one of the biggest sources of public consternation &
the council's decision to pay a consultant $37,000 for training and counseling &
could offer the most hope for success. When news of the training broke, residents flooded council chambers expressing hostile criticisms of the council's inability to govern. But the potential for some resolution of the problems that have plagued the council, and vicariously the city, could be improved by the decision, many city officials have said.
The leader of the workshops, Ashland resident and author Rick Kirschner, believes that the sessions could be effective on two levels: First improving relations with this council, but secondly, improving the political climate so more people become involved in the future.
More involvement is something many are hoping for the next time candidates for the council declare their intention to run.
"I've been here my whole life," said former Mayor Alan DeBoer. "Ashland's still a wonderful town. The people we have in our town with the ability to get things done is there, and if we listen to the negatives it's easy to paint the picture that everything's bad and it's a whole big problem. It's not. It's temporary.
"Another election comes up just 12 months from now and people will be replaced and changed."
Likewise, City Recorder Barbara Christensen believes hope for improvement could lie ahead.
"Well, I think that more individuals need to be less afraid to step forward and run for office," Christensen said. "Individuals without agendas. But the atmosphere I think right now in our community is that certain individuals won't put themselves forward to serve because of what happens to them once they do. And it's a shame, and sometimes I can hardly blame them."
Despite the possibility of future change, many believe the short-term is not as bad as believed. Director of Administrative Services Lee Tuneberg points to the department heads who have stayed around for a long time, despite the well publicized turnover of other posts.
"I really don't see instability," Tuneberg said. "You have to talk to the people that have left about what their reasons to leave were. But, Dick Wanderscheid has been here 30 years. Keith Woodley maybe close to 20, I'm not sure. I've been here seven."
And Bennett speaks highly of the council itself.
"These are great people," Bennett said. "They're smart, they've all run for office for the right reasons. It's true that they don't work together particularly well. It's true that some of them have very strong personalities but they're just there because they want to do good work and I'm not afraid of that."
Eric Navickas, the newest member of the city council remains decidedly upbeat.
"I'm pretty impressed at how quick we are at getting through agenda items," he said. "I think it shows a really healthy democratic process when you have active debate among the councilors. I think, if anything, the council's done a really good job of being very vigilant and diligent of their analyses of really important city issues that impact all of us."
Clearly, optimism, particularly in the face of so much public discontent can only take this council so far. But for those charged with restoring the city's faith in its leadership, there is plenty to work with to bring about a positive lasting change.
Despite turmoil, optimism remains