A casual observer might have thought citizens were speed-dating with city councilors and staff in Carpenter Hall on Monday night, but it was actually the new City Council’s first “listening session.” Members of the public were asked to express their opinions within four minutes to those seated at the table of their choosing and then move along.
About 50 community members shared their opinions on what the next city budget should prioritize to councilors and staff, including Assistant to the City Administrator Adam Hanks, Electric Director Tom McBartlett, Director of Administrative Services Mark Welch, Police Chief Tighe O’Meara and City Attorney Dave Lohman.
Other core staff members and Mayor John Stromberg circulated around the room monitoring time limits and making themselves available for side conversation.
At the end of the session on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus, staff and councilors listed off the concerns and ideas they’d heard over the hour and a half event. Kelly Madding, city administrator, wrote down a list which she will later compile and present to the City Council with ways to implement these ideas when they make their goals for the next two-year budget cycle.
When participants walked in, they were given a slip of paper similar to an online survey on the city website asking them to rank core services, such as those related to health and safety, and put their value on services which are those that represent the values of the community, such as homeless services and water conservation.
This event was different from years past, in that various core city staff and City Councilors were dispersed at various tables around the room. In groups, participants were invited to sit at tables and discuss, one-on-one, their ideas of what the city should be focusing on for the upcoming budget 2019-21.
There were many diverse answers, many not prompted from the survey questions, but some common responses were:
— Improving public transportation,
— Dealing with climate change,
— Emergency preparedness,
— Homeless services,
— Education on proposed 5G network towers,
— Watershed fuel reductions,
— Improving infrastructure; and
— Affordable housing.
Some other notable points of many made by the public included a strategy for the deer issue, dealing with the smoke impact on tourism, creating more opportunities to diversify the community, higher wages and the principle that the city should operate within its means.
Some participants came with packets of paper ready to hand over to those in power or notecards filled with scribbled ideas.
One such bullet-pointed attendee was Louise Shawkat, long-time climate activist. She said she wants more funding to educate the public on greenhouse gases, the Climate Energy Action Plan plan to be reflected in all future decisions and she wants to see a long-term vision for the Ashland Municipal Electric Utility.
“I would also like the council to accept the Transit Feasibility study report because we’ll have the opportunity to have (Rogue Valley Transit District) obtain grant money to implement a trial of improved public transit in our town that will include smaller, lower energy and less polluting vehicles and perhaps an on-demand service,” Shawkat said.
Derrick Claypool awaiting his turn to approach the tables said he works as a bike mechanic at Ashland Electric Bikes and was recently appointed to the Transportation Commission. He said he would like to see economic progress, specifically cutting out projects and services in the city that aren’t bringing in revenue.
“I’d love to see the budget worked over a little bit better and more money spent on public infrastructure and more outreach programs,” Claypool said. “I’d love to see some of the wasted money we’re spending looked at — for instance, the golf course, which is not turning a profit. I’d love to see the town made more biker and pedestrian friendly.”
Gil Livni has lived in Ashland for 14 years and owns the development company Magnolia Investment. He said he spoke to staff about the need for business development, not relying on service business alone and bringing better jobs to Ashland. He also said he wishes there was more diversity within the community.
“We need this so people can actually afford to live in Ashland,” Livni said. “I’m a builder and usually we start at $15-20.”
For those who could not attend the session, an online survey is available at bit.ly/2GZfd2X under the Budget Goal Setting tab. Responses may be submitted until midnight Monday, Jan. 14.
Madding said she received positive feedback on the event and is more than happy to organize another event like this one if the public would like it.
The goals gathered at the session and from the survey will be considered at goal setting meetings on Friday, Jan. 18, and Friday, Feb. 1, between the City Council and staff prior to finalizing the budget. The meetings are open to the public, but no new public comment will be taken on this topic.
(Jan. 9: Story updated to correct the last statement which said meetings between the council and staff are private. Councilors will have one-on-one prep sessions with the moderator, Jon Lange, before the two public meetings.)