A recent email voiced a thought I think will resonate with many. A woman wrote, “There are so many truly terrible decisions coming down from the council lately, it’s hard to know where to focus.”
Amen to that. My view is that we are very close to no longer having representative government in our town, because neighbors and voters appear at hearings and meetings, begging to be heard, and then our elected mayor, councilors or parks commissioners ignore us and do whatever they want.
By definition, representative government requires fair elections, followed by the elected person taking votes that reflect the views of the constituencies who voted for them. I think we understand this as the American democratic contract. I’m claiming our elected officials have gone rogue and regularly break that contract.
Here, we’ve moved beyond elected officials feeling accountable to their constituencies — so old-fashioned. I searched for a term to explain how powerless citizens feel in our town, and then it came to me. We are now in the era of “nanny government.” Like a nanny, our officials think they are the “adults” making difficult choices, and we voters are passionate “children” needing guidance. We believe we have some influence, so to quiet us they have “listening sessions,” which they then entirely ignore.
Persuasion requires not opinion, but evidence. Read on. Looking back at recent issues, you decide if this list meets your “truly terrible decisions” criteria.
1. Cut down healthy, mature trees on the Plaza for sham reasons, ignored citizen requests to wait 90 days, mistakenly used gray pavers and then spin-doctored the mess. 2. Agreed to support an unnecessary Interstate 5 rest facility when neighbors came to meetings concerned about crime and water — council sided with ODOT. 3. When Ashland’s wealthy elites complained about homeless issues, the previous council shamefully passed borderline unconstitutional ordinances like “exclusion zones,” ignoring many of us who know in our bones it is wrong. 4. The last two biennial budget processes were both train wrecks, i.e., the previous budget required a special meeting on the final legal day and then four councilors, in an ugly move, voted to overrule their colleagues, the Citizens’ Budget Committee. Then this biennium budget was an unfolding soap opera — the new finance director resigned mid-process and the new fire chief had to fall on his sword and quit to save three firefighter positions; at the end, the council raised our fees anyway! 5. Our police chief proposed another borderline unconstitutional ordinance to require “some folks” to give their name and birth date to a police officer, many voters objected but the council sided with the chief. 6. Dismayed by being kicked out of a weekly location to serve meals to the needy, the two recent recipients of our prestigious Ragland Award — in a sad and unprecedented moment in our history — returned their award to protest. 7. We can’t even fix the roof on our beloved Community Center! Government seems unable to find the collective will to fix that roof, while proposing unnecessary public projects (undergrounding the Ashland Canal) costing millions. This alone is a poignant snapshot of broken government.
What are we voters to do? Here are my proposals to bring accountability back to city government.
First, current councilors, mayor, and parks commissioners: Remember who you serve and take votes based on your constituencies, not your own or staff agendas. Second, we map the town and have each councilor represent one of six districts. That way, everyone would know exactly who represents them. Third, elected officials need to return to honoring the democratic contract with voters by taking votes that reflect the will of their constituencies, not “herd votes” to advance staff proposals.
My simple request? Please, decision-makers, we don’t need a nanny, we need partners. You should reflect our will, not just “listen” to us. Citizens, we must act to take back our local government!
Bryan Holley lives in Ashland.