State of the City, Part 1: Ashland's 'dysfunctional' council

Illustration by Scott Steussy | Daily TidingsState of the City: Part —

Prologue: September woes

The city of Ashland has had better months than this September.

September opened with a story about the Ashland Fire Department purchasing a large display advertisement in the Tidings to complain about a $300,000 budget cut. The financially-strapped ambulance service &

which the fire department provides &

is also a source of economic concern for the city as leaders deliberate over options inherent in retaining ownership or selling the service to a contractor.

On Sept. 17, Community Development Director David Stalheim tendered his resignation. Stalheim, who had weathered eight months as leader of Ashland's controversial planning department, explained that he had underestimated his love for Washington and decided to pack his family and head back north. Public records indicate a request had been made by a member of the city council for a wide swath of information pertaining to Stalheim's scheduled meetings, phone calls, e-mails, names of individuals with whom he met or planned to meet and any notes he may have taken. The request covered the time period from one month prior to Stalheim's official start as community development director to three months into his tenure.

On Sept. 24, a city council meeting was disrupted by an outburst of profanity. One councilor told another, "shut your ------ mouth." The outburst occurred during an elongated discussion by the council over its own rules, which stalled on a debate over the word "influence" as it pertains to the interaction of individual councilors with city department heads.

And finally, at the end of the month, Mayor John Morrison announced the city's intent to allocate $37,000 for group counseling and training for himself and the entire city council. The announcement made national news.

The question echoing through the Rogue Valley today is, "What's going on in Ashland?"

The Tidings sought to answer that question through its own investigation. Over the next four days we will provide insight into: the relations between the city council and city leaders; the plans for the planning and public works departments; the turnover in the police department; and the collateral damage sustained by the departments of fire, finance and legal. Along with the final report we will also provide an additional report: The sky is not falling. Despite serious concerns, the city is alive, vibrant and well.

Council 'dysfunctional'

Despite the obvious lack of consensus on the Ashland City Council, the six-member panel tasked with shaping the vision and direction of this community finally agreed upon one thing &

it needed counseling.

The cause for alarm is clear: meetings run to 10:30 p.m. and longer, stress levels run high, civil decorum is low, the councilors can't agree on the boundary governing interaction with city leaders and city departments have been negatively impacted by the council's indecisiveness as well as perceived problems of micromanagement by individual councilors. On Oct. 6, amid fierce criticism from residents of the city, the council and mayor began taking group training sessions facilitated by Dr. Rick Kirschner.

"Citizens will see stronger leadership, better teamwork and increased cooperation in conducting city business without compromising the individual councilor beliefs and political passions," Mayor John Morrison wrote in a statement.

In like manner to the divisions that separate the council on a variety of topics, Ashland residents are divided over the issue of spending up to $37,000 for its councilors to engage in multiple training sessions that have been designed to fit a multi-month schedule. Former Ashland mayors Alan DeBoer and Cathy Shaw summed up the community divide. DeBoer, who served one four-year term (2000-04), adamantly opposes the costs of the training.

"Councilors don't have to like each other," DeBoer said. "They don't have to get along. And of course I hate paying consultants, so I'm totally upset about paying $37,000 or even $10,000 or $5,000."

Shaw, who served as mayor for three terms (1988-2000), and also engaged in training to learn to be a more effective leader (at a cost of $500 paid by the city), was in favor of training the council, ironically, like DeBoer, due to financial reasons.

"I think it was money well spent, I think I became more effective," Shaw said. "The council certainly has some problems. If this money would help them be more efficient, effective, communicate better, and get them onto some long-range planning and serve the community better I think it's money well spent.

"How much more are we spending on Central Services right now? That is really directly related over to the council's dysfunction. You can do the math to find out if this is a bargain and it may well be a bargain."

The turmoil between the councilors often reflects the deep divisions and rancorous rhetoric of the residents they represent, but with far-reaching ramifications.

Blind leaders

City Administrator Martha Bennett is tasked with running the city and overseeing its various departments. She looks to the council and mayor to set the vision and policies for the city, which then provides a clear direction for department heads.

"In my view all power comes from the council," Bennett said. "The council, not the councilors. My goal in working with the council &

and this particular council is a particular challenge because of their interpersonal dynamic &

is to help the council in making decisions that help move the city help us do our work. The policy work and vision and goals are defined by the council.

"Because their interpersonal dynamic seems to affect their ability to make decisions, it takes them a really long time to make big decisions, and they sometimes duck them."

Bennett's predecessor, Gino Grimaldi, who served Ashland from 2003 to 2006 before accepting a job as city manager of Springfield, holds a similar view of the political dynamics in Ashland. He agreed with the assessment that the city council during his tenure had failed to set the vision and policy for the city, which hampered the ability of staff to move the city in a particular direction that pleased the council.

"The council reflects the community," Grimaldi said. "You have a community that has differences of opinions. Those differences of opinion are reflected in the council. The question is, can the council work through those differences in a manner that's productive?"

The most visible impact of the lack of vision and specific policies is found within the Community Development Department, which oversees planning and building in Ashland. Since the departure of longtime leader John MacLaughlin &

who took a job in Truckee, Calif., after 19 years in Ashland's planning department &

the city has failed twice to find a permanent replacement.

"As far as I can tell there has been not one single bit of policy of long-range planning since I left office," former mayor Cathy Shaw said. "That's a long time for a vibrant city to go without any idea of where it's going."

Meanwhile, the Community Development Department, which is expected to pay for much of its subsistence through planning permits and building revenues, is not only failing to reach financial goals set by the council, but is trending the opposite way, Stalheim said.

"The council, several years ago, set a goal that the building division should be self-supporting and planning to be at 75 percent," Stalheim said. "And I think planning has been at about 15 to 20 percent and building is about 50 percent."

Councilors Cate Hartzell, Eric Navickas, Alice Hardesty, David Chapman, Kate Jackson and Russ Silbiger tend to agree that economic problems in the Community Development Department are partly due to the real estate troubles impacting the entire country. But the council's impact on planning progress takes its toll as well, and when planning fails to meet its goals, the budget is impacted.

"It very much impacts the general fund because we rely on fees that are collected," Jackson said. "And the buildings age. We had, in the late '90s and early 2000s, a series of residential developments go through. And those all happened and they're built. Since then the planning applications have been a variety of commercial buildings &

and I don't know the total number of applications that were processed &

but many of those commercial ones are controversial and they've either been denied or they come to council. And when they don't get built, we don't get the money. So, for the last three years or four years, we haven't been seeing any major new construction in town."

The council's inability to make timely decisions has hampered the lengthy planning process and had a negative economic impact with fewer permits processed and fewer projects being built, Stalheim said.

"I think for the community to move forward, leaders need to be leaders and make decisions and take risks at times," Stalheim said. "There are items still on the agenda that are continued from meeting to meeting from when I got here that have not yet been resolved."

Stalheim says the inability of the city council to get through its agenda leads to frustrated residents who appear to speak about issues that are repeatedly tabled.

"Eventually they stop coming to the meetings. And that's what I've seen happen here," he said.

DeBoer agrees. He assesses the planning process as one that deters development due to the indecision by the council after developers have jumped through all the hoops placed by the planning commission. Yet, without a clear vision, planners sometimes seek guidance from the council on particular issues to no avail.

"You have our planning commission that brings a request to the city in clarifying their role and they get no answer," DeBoer said.

Shaw says state laws allow basically two options: build up or build out. Ashland's Comprehensive Plan provides the vision of a compact city without sprawl. That leaves one option &

build up.

"Business is our friend," Shaw said. "And there is a sense among the council right now that it's not. We want businesses to be successful in Ashland.

"So if you are going up in your downtown, encouraging residential living above and businesses below, you also swap out parking so you're no longer having big parking areas. But when the time came to implement that &

with a few of the land use plans that were rebuked &

the developer says, you know, I need to know what is expected of me. And the planning department needs to know what is expected.

"Well, if the council is making decisions based on one direction where everything in writing says another, you've got a problem."

A determined group

Speculation over the council's inability to determine a vision centers squarely upon a group of residents believed to be involved with several city councilors in an effort to deliberately undermine the planning process. Those residents, who sources say seek to severely limit growth in Ashland, are believed to work in conjunction with councilors Cate Hartzell, Alice Hardesty and Eric Navickas to overwhelm city departments and processes.

"There was a shadow government that consisted of Cate Hartzell, Alice Hardesty, a couple of others, and Jack Hardesty before Alice. And I think Alice might have been there anyway," Shaw said.

"Every Sunday they got together according to very reliable people I talked to about it. And each of them had their assignments on Monday morning that would overwhelm a department head or the administrator, or Julie Di Chiro. They fairly well had all corners of the city covered in terms of 'We want this and we want that.'

The efforts by this "shadow government." &

to what extent it exists and it coordinated remains uncertain, though the impact on the city is tangible &

to stagnate progress in various departments in the city can be seen publicly through the machinations of the city council. Hartzell plays a central role in what has been viewed as dysfunction within this political body. While councilors Hardesty and Navickas are perceived to also be aligned with Hartzell, she has clearly taken a lead role that is both public and documented.

Two distinct strategies are employed by Hartzell. The first tactic is "the stall." Slowing down council meetings with additional questions can extend the time it takes to examine each issue, often forcing agenda items to be pushed ahead to the next meeting. While supporters argue that Hartzell is being conscientious, some also believe she comes to the meetings unprepared. In either case, the tactic succeeds as decisions are tabled, small details are the subject of lengthy debates and frustration among her opponents grow.

Critics say the second tactic used by Hartzell is "the concerned councilor," which focuses on a single question: when does the desire for information cross a line into a push for undue influence.

One of the overriding difficulties inherent in the council's perceived dysfunction is its inability to decide on its own rules governing interaction with department heads.

Grimaldi has suggested a prohibition or ordinance be set in place to clearly set a boundary for individual councilors who seek to take up staff time to express their concerns on an issue. Bennett is seeking to establish that boundary.

The mayor agrees that such a line of demarcation is essential to prevent "undue influence." Former mayors Shaw and DeBoer agree. However, it is the council itself that must determine what the rule will state. And currently, the council cannot agree on the definition of the word "influence."

The conflict comes into play with questions over what constitutes influence when a councilor is discussing an issue with a department head and seeks to express his or her concerns. Additionally, how much time can a councilor be allotted to express concerns?

Most of the councilors agree they primarily seek answers to questions that help clarify issues to make better informed decisions. However, the expression of strong concerns by councilors to department heads pertaining to particular issues coming before the council could be construed as undue influence, meddling, or perhaps even intimidation.

Hartzell's use of both "the stall" and "the concerned councilor" tactics have made her the target of criticism in the community.

The stall

At a Sept. 4 council meeting regarding a debate over the Mt. Ashland special use permit, Hartzell employed "the stall" tactic by sitting quietly at 10:28 p.m. while time slowly ticked toward the mandatory end of the meeting at 10:30 p.m. It was her turn to vote. Her vote would tie the council and the mayor intended to break the tie by siding against her.

The drama unfolded while the public watched, wondering why it was taking so long for Hartzell to make a decision. The tactic failed, as the mayor reminded her that should she not vote, the previous status would prevail, which Hartzell was attempting to overturn. She voted. The mayor voted against her and ended the meeting.

While this high-profile attempt drew the most attention, Hartzell has used variations of the stall tactic in many city council meetings to the degree that the council has earned a reputation for its inability to get things done.

"Council meetings are going to 10:30 p.m. every meeting," DeBoer said. "They didn't use to. You watch Cate, she takes over an issue. She comes to the meetings, in my opinion, unprepared and she tries to micromanage."

Another person who has been involved in council politics long enough to make comparisons is the city official taking notes at each meeting.

"You've probably heard they've had 10 meetings, trying to remand and to revise our council rules," City Recorder Barbara Christensen said. "But they can't get past a certain section which has to do with council behavior with city staff."

Ashland's new city administrator has quickly developed a stellar reputation throughout the city for her no-nonsense approach. Aware of the problems with time, she has tried to keep the councilors on point and moving forward.

"If you ever watch channel 9 on Tuesday nights you'll see me do this," Bennett said. "'Okay, so where does the council want to go? Where are we headed with this issue? What's the next step?'

"You'll hear that. I mean, that's what I have to do. I have to try to prompt. And you'll see me in the council meetings saying, 'What the staff needs from the council tonight is "...?' I just have to help them figure out what to do next &

and in some cases I can't help them."

The concerned councilor

The second tactic used by Hartzell is to express her concerns to department heads using a spectrum of increasingly tense methods. Hartzell's most recent expression of concern was so far past the point of normal interaction with department heads it was disavowed by the rest of the council, with the exception of Hardesty.

On July 19, Hartzell sent a public records request to City Recorder Barbara Christensen demanding the following from Community Development Director David Stalheim:

"From the time one month before he started to three months after, whatever was discussed in the interviews that had the focus of his role in the dept. [sic], the future of planning in Ashland, the planning process and department, specific ordinances or regulations, staff and citizens [sic], economic development, history of public discourse related to planning issues. List of people with whom he spoke or planned to speak. Whatever notes he made during those discussions. List of people whom David Stalheim interviewed and talked to (phone, in person, email [sic]) upon his arrival on his job, pursuant to his future work as Director. Any notes he took during or after these meetings/conversations is also part of this request."

Hartzell requested the information because she was concerned that special interests may have had some influence in Stalheim's decisions regarding changes in the planning processes. She said she was particularly concerned over the issue of riparian setbacks.

Stalheim wasn't the only department head to whom Hartzell expressed her concerns. And Hartzell wasn't the only councilor expressing strong concerns to department heads. According to Navickas, on Sept. 26, both he and Hartzell met with Police Chief Terry Holderness to register opposition to the department's Taser request and to discuss other issues.

"We've been discussing the specifics of the PERF report, his recommendations around Taser use, and the substation downtown," Navickas said. "Myself and Cate Hartzell actually met with him.

"This meeting was at his office and we discussed the Taser issue. Moreso we met with him to hear what his recommendations are and understand exactly the specifics of that. So it was more a meeting to hear what his positions were so we could have a better understanding of that."

Navickas followed the meeting with Holderness with yet another meeting to express his concerns over the downtown substation. He said he believes that the expression of concern by councilors to staff is healthy.

"I think it's in the interest of both parties," Navickas said, "and I think it's a healthy situation when a councilor can go to staff and state their position, and allow staff to state their position &

have a basic conversation with a very conscious reality that you're simply a single councilor."

Most city staff, however, are well aware of the many diverse demands coming from the council, particularly in light of the lack of a unified direction or vision from the council. Shaw, for example, is not a fan of the constant meddling from councilors.

"I would just argue," she said, "is this really how we want to spend our tax dollars? Is no direction a direction? You know, it sounds a little bit like it's still going on and we will lose good people. And it's a crying shame."

Budget concerns

Hartzell admits she's brought a number of concerns to city staff. It's the reason she got involved in the budget committee and eventually ran for a seat on the council. She represents a very active element within the Ashland community who believe their being elected is support from the city for their methods.

For example, during the last budget cycle, Hartzell and Hardesty took their budget concerns over capital improvement projects directly to Finance Director Lee Tuneberg.

"So the part of the budget that is discretionary is the Capital Improvement Project," Hartzell said. "There's other parts that are, but a large block of where (funds) get spent is capital improvements.

"We went through a couple of years where that process got changed, so I believe the council was out of touch &

less in touch than when I first started on the budget committee. So we initiated bringing that to the council even before it went to the Budget Committee and so we were eye-balling it and looking at what do we really need and what can we put off?"

Current and former leaders have varying degrees of tolerance with Hartzell's strategies. Most believe she is well-meaning and seeks to improve Ashland. But, as some have stated, Hartzell doesn't work well with others. Some see her expressions of concern as cover for undue influence and pressure on city staff.

The expression of concerns by individual councilors has been a source of concern for the mayor, who believes an ordinance is in order to govern the conduct of councilors interacting with department heads.

"Cate and I have had discussions several times &

both during my tenure as mayor and, I think, even going back as councilor &

about what is the appropriate level of interaction between council members and staff," Morrison said. "And, even when I was a councilor, Cate and I disagreed on that and we've had a number of conversations over this. And invariably Cate's answer is always she has a responsibility to the city to look into something."

Morrison's predecessor agrees.

"That's the hardest thing for staff," DeBoer said. "When you have councilors wanting more information than they should be having, and they're making a request that is not valid. What do you do as an employee? Are you in fear of that councilor? It puts you in a bad position.

"If you're a department head it makes it even worse because what is your responsibility? As a city administrator you know the council can gang up and fire you."

Former Mayor Cathy Shaw is also in agreement with both Morrison and DeBoer.

"Well, typically we used to allow council access to the department heads but the mayor actually has the authority to say uh-uh (no)," Shaw said. "This is beyond excessive.

"That is one of the reasons I campaigned hard to keep a strong mayor form of government, because your mayor can keep them (councilors) away from department heads. The mayor is the chief executive of a municipal corporation. The mayor appoints and fires department heads and the mayor can insulate those department heads from the council."

Uncivil expression

When asked about Hartzell's public records request, the other councilors declared they would never take such action (with the exception of Hardesty, who said that she had not taken such an action, but whether she would "depends on the circumstance").

Navickas, while maintaining that he would never make such a request, simultaneously defended Hartzell's legal right to do so.

"Any member of the public can make requests. We're getting asked right now. There's a public information request from the Ashland Daily Tidings that's coming through Barbara Christensen's office. So you know, it's a public right. I don't think that should be limited to councilors or limited from councilors either."

When pressed to make a distinction between the legality of the request and its appropriateness, Navickas admitted concern.

"I wouldn't encourage that type of behavior and I don't think that I'd be involved in that myself. I think those issues come down to law. The law says you have the right to make public information requests. I can't say that that should be illegal.

"I wouldn't encourage that, I think that it's generally in the best interest of any councilor to have a really good rapport with staff. And I think when you begin to do those things it creates animosity, and I wouldn't encourage it whatsoever."

Chapman expressed a different approach with department heads that suited him.

"When I request something from a department head the way it usually stands is if you have a question, a clarification, something relatively quick, you just call up and talk to a department head. If you're going to work on a pet project and start doing research for it, it's my belief that that kind of increased activity &

adding to that person's workload &

should be cleared either as an entire council or through the city administrator."

Morrison spoke to Hartzell about her request targeting Stalheim to express his concern. He advised her that he did not agree with her decision to move forward with her request.

"She said that she was concerned that he (Stalheim) may have been in some way influenced by people. I thought it was an awfully broad brush and I told her that it gave the perception of a fishing trip and perhaps undue influence.

"I don't know if she stepped over a line, I talked to personnel about it. It didn't seem that there was anything that we could find but I wasn't happy with it. I didn't think it was appropriate."


Hartzell's hardball tactic struck many as not in keeping with respectful inter-relations with city department heads. Chapman expressed some discontent over the manner in which he has seen department heads treated.

"It would be hard for me to point fingers," Chapman said, "but I would say that there are some cases that I'm not happy with."

Jackson spoke of the oversight of the council and the tendency for individual councilors to lose sight of a respectful boundary.

"It's real tempting as an elected official to want to go and learn about the details of things, and Ashland has had a lot of openness &

a lot of availability of the department heads to the elected body for years," Jackson said. "And they've usually been extremely generous of their time. The difficulty comes in when an elected official thinks things need to change faster than you can change them by the normal route and so yeah, I think we micromanage."

Navickas says he seeks to cultivate a mutually respectful relationship with staff.

"I know there's been some incidents in the past," Navickas said. "But I haven't really seen anything specifically that I can point to that looks like a councilor's really abusing staff.

"I personally work to have the best relationship with staff. It's in my best interest to feel that I can go to staff, ask them specific questions about anything coming forward on our staff memo &

and I don't want to be in a situation where I feel that staff doesn't respect me. And I don't want to show disrespect for staff. We have a really good staff right now, professional staff &

what we have left of it."

The impact of dysfunction

The problems of dysfunctional relations within the council and the inability for the councilors to unanimously determine a definitive boundary with regard to influence of city staff have taken its toll on the city. Christensen expressed her opinion on what it will take to replace the leaders the city has lost.

"I think it's going to be really, really difficult for us to find a replacement in any of our departments," Christensen said. "Because every one of us are in specific professions where there's organizations we belong to and we all know each other.

"I said to a particular councilor, 'Nobody wants to come to work for the city of Ashland.' And they asked, 'Why?' And I said, 'Because we have a dysfunctional council &

it's known out in the state right now in all the various professional organizations.'"

Although no one will publicly acknowledge the link between the dysfunction of the Ashland City Council and the turnover of the city's experienced staff, every former employee who talked to the Tidings has suggested taking a look at the council.

In an effort to control the boundary between councilors and department heads, the mayor and council have attempted, without success, to establish a definitive line that enables constructive communication between councilors seeking information from department heads while protecting department heads from "undue influence" by councilors, as well as intimidation under color of authority. The debate over the rule pertaining to "influence" has hampered progress in establishing an ordinance governing the relationship between councilors and staff.

The debate has embroiled the council in a battle with high levels of stress enveloping the environment and frustrations leading to the breakdown in civility. All the councilors admit to being strapped by stress, with the exception of Hartzell.

When asked if she feels the stress, Hartzell replied, "Not particularly. I've been doing this for seven years and I've seen a lot and worked with a lot of different people. So no, not particularly."

That puts Hartzell in a class by herself. Jackson, who has been on the council the longest, says that over the past several years she's placed the stress level on the council around a 7, on a scale of — to 10. When asked where it is today, she gave it an 8.

Breaking it down

Hardesty, who is closest to Hartzell and new to the council, along with Navickas, showed the signs of stress during her interview with the Tidings.

Q: What is the goal for the Community Development Department, as viewed by the council?

A: (sigh) "Planning and building."

Q: Is there an economic goal it is expected to achieve?

A: "Not that I know of. They assist in economic development and I think he (Stalheim) was in charge of an economic development contract, or grant. But I don't think there's an economic goal that they're bound by."

Q: After talking with staff, it has come to my attention that neither side of the Community Development Department is meeting the economic goals, but they are trending the other way. Do you know why?

A: "There's much less building going on right now. It's because of the downturn in the real estate market. Definitely. I think that's the main reason."

Q: There's been some criticism that because decisions aren't being made in a timely manner by the council, that is having a negative economic impact within the Community Development Department. How do you respond to that criticism?

A: "You know what? You're making me feel like I'm on the witness stand. And I've been an expert witness in legal cases. And you're making me feel like I'm responsible for everything that's going not as well as it should be in the city. And I can't tell you the reasons for all of this. I'm very tired. I've been through hours and hours of meetings. I have a bad cold. And I'm disturbed by the way the Tidings' Web site is allowing anonymous comments to trash us. And I'm not going to do this interview anymore. I'm sorry. But you've hit me at a bad time."

It appears the stress level on the city council is running extremely high &

including public outbursts like Chapman telling Navickas to shut up with the use of profanity during a council meeting and several councilors walking out of meetings in frustration.

There is some question about the ability of the counseling and training sessions to help this elected body become more functional, cooperative and efficient.

If there is a "shadow government" working behind the scenes, then perhaps the "dysfunction" of the council is a misdiagnosis. The fa&

231;ade of a disease would prove effective in providing cover for a deliberate intent to ensure only that which is approved by the shadow government successfully navigates the troubled waters of discourse in the council chambers. After all, each councilor is aligned with supportive residents and groups that have a particular vision for the city.

Political alliances are to be expected, according to DeBoer.

"I think each councilor should be aligned with groups," DeBoer said. "That's part of the political process. The thing is, do you work for the city with the group to improve or do you work with the group to undermine? "I think subconsciously some of the councilors work to undermine the system."

Assessing the problem

Under the current circumstances, Dr. Rick Kirschner's job is quite large. If the Ashland City Council is indeed simply a group of wonderfully passionate people who have trouble functioning in a group with one another, perhaps there is hope for a reasonable resolution that will provide mutual benefit to both the council and the city.

However, if Hartzell, Hardesty and Navickas are purposefully advancing the agenda of a loyal constituency using strategies that undermine the system, in that case Ashland doesn't necessarily have a dysfunctional council, but rather one very dirty political battle for the future of the city.

That's a question many of those interviewed for the story are wondering out loud, and perhaps only the time with Kirschner will reveal.

is the Content Editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 541-482-3456 x223 or

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