Ashland’s New Form of Government Begins January, 2021 – Here Are the Changes

by Dave Kanner, Ashland

What is arguably the most important change to Ashland City government in the city’s history will take place on January 1.  On that date, Ashland will say goodbye to its hopelessly outdated mayor/council form of government and become a council/manager government, like every city of any size in Oregon (except Portland) and like the vast majority of cities in the United States, thanks to a charter amendment approved in the May election by a nearly two-to-one majority.

Ask most Americans, and most Ashlanders for that matter, “Who runs your city?” and they are likely to answer, “the mayor.”  That’s because of the national profile enjoyed by the mayors of extremely large cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles (who do in fact run their cities), or because they grew up knowing that Mayor McCheese runs McDonaldland.  But the large majority of American cities are not run by mayors, they are run by city managers; trained, experienced professionals with specialized skills and knowledge in municipal management. 

Ashland’s outdated (and soon-to-be-ancient-history) City Charter doesn’t exactly provide for having the mayor run the city, but it designates the mayor as the “executive officer” of the city and states that the mayor shall exercise careful supervision over the “appointive officers” of the city.  (The term “appointive officers” is not defined in the charter.)  The charter also requires the mayor to “sign all orders of the treasury” and gives the mayor the power to appoint (and presumably supervise) a city administrator, with the confirmation of the Council.

The charter amendment changes this.  Effective January 1, the city manager will be Ashland’s chief executive officer.  He or she will be hired and supervised by the entire City Council and all administrative authority over city operations (except for the Parks Department and the City Attorney) will be consolidated under the city manager.  Among other things, the city manager will:

  • Administer and enforce all city ordinances, resolutions, franchises, leases, contracts, permits, and other city decisions;
  • Appoint, supervise and remove city employees, including all non-elected department heads.  Currently, the mayor appoints department heads with Council confirmation;
  • Organize city departments and administrative structure, except that the City Manager will have no responsibility for the administrative coordination of the City Attorney’s Office or the Parks and Recreation Department;
  • Prepare and administer the annual city budget (although only the Budget Committee can approve and only the Council can adopt the budget);
  • Administer city utilities and property;
  • Encourage and support regional and intergovernmental cooperation;
  • Promote cooperation among the council, staff and citizens in developing city policies, and building a sense of community; and
  • Perform other duties as directed by the council.

The mayor will have no administrative responsibilities whatsoever.  The mayor will be the political head of the city and their role will boil down to:  Presiding over Council meetings, breaking a tie vote of the Council and representing the city in a ceremonial capacity.  These are, of course, all things the mayor does now.  There are a few other things the mayor currently does that she will continue to do.  The mayor, with Council confirmation, will appoint members of committees and commissions (except for the Budget Committee which, per state law, must be appointed by the full Council), form ad hoc committees, place items on or remove items from the Council agenda (although individual Councilors have the ability to place items on the agenda, too), and deliver an annual “State of the City” address. 

The mayor in council/manager government is basically a facilitator, albeit one with a bully pulpit by virtue of their position.  In addition, the annual state of the city address gives the mayor a powerful platform for laying out a vision for the city’s future, which can in turn become a basis for Council discussion of city goals and priorities.  But it’s the Council and mayor collectively that will determine the policy and direction (the ends to be achieved) of the city, not the mayor unilaterally, and the city manager who will be responsible for ensuring that Council policy and direction is implemented, not the mayor. 

This is not a new or radical idea.  As previously stated, this is how most American cities work.  At a time when many Ashlanders are concerned about the direction and affordability of the city, let’s not expect miraculous overnight changes as a result of this change in our form of government.  But we can expect more streamlined, professional and innovative administration of our city government, something that’s long overdue.

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Dave Kanner was Ashland City Administrator from 2012 to 2016.  He served as treasurer of the PAC that supported the city manager charter amendment this past May.

//inserted by Sharon