City Council members, department heads and city staff ventured into seven randomly selected neighborhoods Thursday night to speak with citizens in an effort they say will help them understand constituent concerns but which at least one council candidate says constitutes illegal campaigning using city resources.
The “Engage Ashland” program is something new city Administrator Kelly Madding brought with her from Medford, where she was deputy city manager before being selected for the Ashland position in June. Groups of two to three city councilors and employees, armed with pamphlets on topics such as the budget, the climate and energy action plan, tourism and some new services and incentives for Ashland residents, fanned out to knock on doors. They were there to answer questions and get feedback from residents.
All councilors except Dennis Slattery, most of the department heads and key staff including fire and police officers were present.
Staff asked residents what they thought the city was doing well and what they could be doing better. The goal was to get feedback from citizens who may not be attending council meetings regularly. They encouraged residents to fill out a general survey online which would provide them with even more feedback.
The survey, which can be found online at ashland.or.us/engage (select the engage Ashland tab), is open until Saturday, Oct. 20.
Prior to the visits, a postcard was sent out to each home.
“The feedback I got both from staff and City Council was really positive,” Madding said. “The general sentiment was that people thanked us for taking the time to come out and hear what they had to say. We got a lot of feedback.”
Madding said they heard about deer, transients coming through town and the lack of affordable housing. She said they had a lot of compliments on the operation of the city and the police and fire departments.
Twenty homes in each of seven neighborhoods for a total of 140 homes were selected for visits. Madding said about half of the people weren’t home. The neighborhoods were selected randomly.
The areas they went were around West Nevada, High, Fifth, Liberty, Lincoln and Clay streets and Oak Knoll Drive. If the event continues, it would go to different areas of the city each time. The plan would be to have one event in the spring and one in the fall every year, just like Medford.
Mayor John Stromberg said going to the homes of Ashland residents brought everything into perspective for him.
“I think that this is just a terrific idea and I don’t know why we haven’t been doing it already,” Stromberg said. “In Ashland, face-to-face relationships are the foundation of how we do good things, and this allows us to meet people and allows them to meet their elected and key staff employees, and it allows us to see into each other’s worlds.”
Stromberg said when he and Councilor Jackie Bachman were on Clay Street they got to see firsthand the deteriorated roads, maintained by the county, while hearing the concerns it causes the residents.
“For us it was a direct experience of the reality of some of the citizens in town,” Stromberg said. “If we keep doing this every spring and fall we will build up better mutual understanding and actual relationships.”
Stromberg said this is a foundational piece to making city government more accessible to its citizens, as well as helping key staff to be more informed of the city’s needs.
“A lot of what we do has to do with systems and fees and rules, which are abstract, and they don’t really start to make sense until you see them in the context of the actual human beings who are dealing with or benefiting from what you’re trying to do,” Stromberg said. “The key to good information is good relationships.”
However, this door to door tactic so close to the election may seem uncomfortably close to campaigning.
Julie Akins, who used to cover the city beat as a freelancer for the Ashland Daily Tidings and is currently running for council position No. 3, filed a complaint to the city and copied the newspaper with her concerns.
In her email, she wrote, “I am calling upon you to investigate the propriety of incumbent councilors seeking re-election using public employee staff time and resources to create a survey which they will administer, with staff, door to door with voters. This is occurring three weeks prior to a hotly contested election where four seats are up for election and all incumbents are challenged. Going door to door to speak with voters is commonly known as campaigning. ...
“(S)ince (the city administrator) does not know who the councilors will be, wouldn’t it make sense to wait until after the election ... It would seem this is not within the law nor the spirit of it.”
Madding said everyone was instructed prior to going out to not talk politics, whether it be on the local or national level. She stressed that the purpose of the event was not for campaigning and that she wasn’t aware of anyone mentioning campaigns.
She also said that the reasoning behind having this event in October is simply because of the weather. She said more people are gone in the summer, just getting settled back into school and work in September and any later than now the weather turns ugly, the time changes and it gets dark earlier.
“It’s a weird thing to have someone unexpected come to your door when it’s dark,” Madding said.
Madding said Medford always has their outreach event around this time. She said Medford had theirs last week.
Asked whether it was ethical for City Council candidates to go door to door this close to the election using staff time and resources, a representative of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission said she could not comment because the question does not fall under their jurisdiction, which focuses on public officials taking advantage of their position for financial gain.
She suggested contacting the Elections Division with the Secretary of State, but no response from that office was immediately forthcoming.
“It is strictly a program that we tried, and we’ll see if the Council liked it and will want to do it again,” Madding said. “It was simply a way for us to get some feedback from people who don’t regularly engage with the City Council and we achieved that goal.”