Influence of councilors sure to continue

With a chance to help curb the problem of councilors exhibiting undue influence, Mayor John Morrison wavered, offering a tie-breaking vote for watered-down wording that guarantees business as usual for the Ashland City Council.

Morrison's refusal to take a strong stand is nothing new. But Morrison's own statements during an interview last month suggested that he believed change was needed.

At that time he said he has been at odds with Councilor Cate Hartzell for years over her "level of interaction" with city staff.

"We've had a number of conversations over this," Morrison said, "and invariably Cate's answer is always: she has a responsibility to the city to look into something."

For more than a year the council has attempted to draft rules to rein itself in. The tiresome process has dragged on over this central issue of influence. While all councilors pay plenty of lip service to the problem of "undue influence," nobody agrees what it is and who might be doing it. Roughly half of the council is convinced that they are merely serving the people through their interaction with city staff. Being "influential" they reason is not exerting "undue influence."

Ah, but it is. City councilors are not average residents seeking to express an individual point of view. They are the supervisors of our top-level city staff, empowered collectively with the hiring and firing of department heads. When a councilor, or two, requests a meeting to discuss concerns over a proposal &

be it an effort to streamline the bogged down planning commission approval process or to equip police officers with Tasers &

the "influence" is directly akin to that of any boss coming in and expressing concerns to a subordinate.

The language that Morrison voted to drop from these rules targeted an attempt to influence city staff proposals or recommendations. Councilor David Chapman rightly pointed out that any council influence should be done in public, in a council meeting, not in one-on-one interviews. The proposed language would have ensured that.

Instead, Morrison voted to remove it, offering vague wording that councilors should not "pressure or direct," city staff.

It is utterly disappointing that we have to spell this out. Professionals understand the chain of command. City leaders should realize that a person who moves their family to a city for a six-figure job will take very seriously the concerns of the people who ultimately decide to continue to pay that salary or not.

The council's track record of "influence" was made very clear in our recent four-part series on The State of the City. If requesting every appointment from the planning director, and sending e-mails threatening a very public attack on the director is not exerting undue influence, then we have absolutely no hope of ever establishing what is.

Some members of this city council refuse to respect that they are a public body. By definition the council should do its business in public. Mayor Morrison is on the record for his concern over the influence exerted by Councilor Hartzell out of the public eye. He had the chance to enact specific and enforceable language to help curb this problem. Most importantly, he had the opportunity with his tie-breaking vote to send a message to city staff that the council's reputation for making Ashland a difficult place to work is about to change.

Instead, he voted with Hartzell to ensure business as usual. And the most popular word used recently to describe this business as usual: 'dysfunctional,' just like this vote.

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