Council Corner: City dynamics: The tail wagging the dog

After eight years on the City Council, I’ve come to the realization that an important piece of the governing process in Ashland is effectively broken. This may come as a shock to many, including those who are themselves in city government and others who feel well-served by the actions of our city. But hear me out.

Examples of this broken process have played out in a number of the city’s recent decisions, including the Normal Neighborhood Master Plan (especially with regard to surrounding infrastructure, for which Ashland citizens will pay dearly), the Oak Knoll Visitors Center, the Downtown Plaza redesign, the Grandview guardrail solution and the Gateway Public Art installation. It is currently playing out in the Nevada Street Bridge proposal, where I have called for additional engineering and an in-depth hydrology study, cost/benefit analysis, and exploration and consideration of the pros and cons of less expensive options. We can’t possibly nail down what this project will cost until these studies are completed; the estimates range anywhere from $1.5 million to $10 million.

Our city’s government should have, as its underlying principle, Democracy with a capital D. How should this principle guide our processes? Ideally, citizens bring forth ideas and concerns. Elected representatives ? the city councilors and mayor ? then study the issue and decide whether to enact it into law or resolution. Once enacted, city staff, from department heads on down, implement the policy.

At every step in the process, citizens have an opportunity to offer input. Additionally, elected representatives may bring to citizens’ attention matters about which they feel citizens need greater awareness. So, in this best of all worlds, there is a healthy give and take between citizens and elected officials, including the means by which representatives learn the peoples’ concerns ? and vice-versa.

Let’s not confuse how the process should work with how it actually does work in Ashland. Lately, the process is often more top-down than bottom-up. Ideas mainly originate with city administrative staff, well-meaning but unelected people; 65 percent of them do not even live in or pay taxes in Ashland.

They propose ideas to the mayor and council. The mayor prioritizes them with the city administrator and then brings them to the council agenda. The council rubber-stamps them, and the administrative staff implements. It’s a closed-loop system that leaves out the one essential ingredient that must underpin Democracy: the citizens themselves.

Admittedly, this is a very smooth-running process with no bumps in the road, since little opposition is expressed. The problem is that, too often, this sequence of events occurs without adequate study, search for alternatives, or cost/benefit analyses. The citizens’ views enter the process only after everything is virtually decided, cast in concrete and shovel-ready.

Citizen input is an afterthought. Citizens might, if they’re lucky, read an article in the paper or watch a council meeting on television and discover what their city is actually up to. The tail ? unelected city staff ? has effectively wagged the dog. But the true culprit in the process is not city staff; it is a lack of leadership by elected representatives, which begins with the mayor.

My concern about this “tail-wagging-the-dog” dynamic is a large part of why I launched my candidacy for mayor. As your city CEO, I’ll correct this problem and bring citizens back into the process. I will pursue the means by which city government is made transparent and accountable to the citizens. My platform is “Your Vision, Your Voice,” because your vision and your voice have been left out of the process for far too long. I hope to earn your vote and bring you back.

— Carol Voisin is a member of the Ashland City Council and a candidate for Ashland mayor.

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