Ashland City Councilors took a straw poll at Monday's Study Session meeting to get a better handle on which applicants they'll interview to fill the council seat left vacant by Pam Marsh's election to the state legislature.
Each of the five councilors were allowed to write up to four applicant's names on a piece of paper, along with their own name, so it would not be a secret ballot, which are not allowed in public meetings. Mayor John Stromberg did not vote on the 12 applicants remaining after David Young and former Councilor Carol Voisin withdrew their names from the initial pool of 14.
Applicants Traci Darrow, who succeeded Marsh as executive director of the Ashland Food Bank, and former Chase Bank executive Shaun Moran each received five mentions.
Receiving three mentions each were Tonya Graham, executive director of the globally recognized environmental nonprofit research organization The Geos Institute, and Gina DuQuenne, an executive for Neuman Hotels and a founder of the Southern Oregon Pride Parade, as well as an organizer for Martin Luther King Day events.
Both were named by Councilor Slattery. Graham was also named by councilors Rich Rosenthal and Mike Morris, and DuQuenne by councilors Stefani Seffinger and Greg Lemhouse.
The fifth applicant receiving more than one mention was Louise Shawkat, a key organizer of the 10x20 energy plan, who received interest from councilors Lemhouse and Rosenthal.
The proposed short list of nominees were expected to be added as an agenda item at Tuesday evening's council meeting and councilors may choose to conduct more formal interviews before a final vote on Feb. 21 to fill Position No. 6 on the council.
Councilor Lemhouse was expected to miss Tuesday night's meeting, which appeared to be part of what prompted Monday night's unofficial winnowing of the applicant list. According to the city code, councilors may "vote in Study Sessions on guidance to staff concerning matters to be presented to Council for decision at subsequent meetings."
"Council action would need to be taken (Tuesday) if councilors want to take any official action to narrow the filed of candidates," city Attorney Dave Lohman wrote to Mayor Stromberg about Monday's action, according to Stromberg. "Council action would need to be taken (Tuesday) if Councilors want to take any official action to narrow the field of candidates."
Viewers of the live online streaming video of Monday night's Study Session had no way of knowing whom each councilor listed, but city Recorder Barbara Christensen showed the informal ballots to a reporter at the conclusion of the meeting.
The council by charter has 60 days to fill a city council vacancy. That gives them until March 1. The last regular meeting prior to March is Feb. 21, so the goal is to fill the position with a vote on that night.
The public is allowed to speak to items on the agenda. Voting for a new councilor will be noticed and on the agenda.
Monday's session saw a bit of verbal sparring about the council seat replacement procedure between Mayor Stromberg and Recorder Christensen.
“As the elected official charged with handling the matter, this should have gone through me,” said Christensen, after the mayor notified her that he was running the meeting and wanted the city attorney’s input. “It’s the City Recorder’s job to determine how the process should or could work.”
With that Christensen urged the councilors to avoid emails or any correspondence or action which would not be readily transparent and available to the public. “The main thing is that it’s a public process. No secret balloting.”
Councilors grappled with the best way to narrow down 12 candidates to a list of finalists they could interview and eventually appoint one from the group while honoring the public nature of the decision and the community’s right to know.
Councilors Morris, Rosenthal and Seffinger were initially hopeful about interviewing all the candidates in a special open session. “I would have preferred to interview all candidates,” said Seffinger.
Mayor Stromberg replied that allowing each applicant to spend 10 minutes answering questions would be “perfunctory” and not really get at the key attributes needed to work with the group.
Councilor Slattery agreed, but strongly suggested all applicants be given consideration and time. “There’s a point to meeting with all these people. Most of these people are known to us as community members.” However, he ultimately agreed that councilors needed to make a short list which could be voted on at the regular council business meeting. “It seems to me that we put a short list for us to consider and the for the public to know about (those on the short list).”
Councilor Lemhouse agreed with a short list, but not with interviewing all the candidates, saying he didn’t have time. “I can’t fit 13 individual interviews in a hole in my calendar.”
Rosenthal asked if there could be a special election in May, but the city charter does not allow for that process, according to Christensen.
Councilors ultimately agreed to create a finalist ballot with four candidates picked by each councilor.
Councilors Slattery, Rosenthal, Seffinger and Morris all stated the difficulty in narrowing the list as they found merits with many of the candidates. At one point the mayor acknowledged the tensions and difficulty, saying “This is a hard thing to do. It’s an awkward process.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.