Correcting the Narrative on the State of Ashland City Government

by Susan T. Wilson

If you’re like a lot of folks we know, you’re probably wondering what’s going on with the Ashland city government. People are leaving top jobs. The Ashland Tidings says the city’s in crisis.

Here’s some background. Last year voters decided to change the form of government from a strong mayor to a professional city manager and then elected a new mayor and three new members of the City Council.

Power, however, has remained in the hands of the old guard that has controlled the city government for at least the past 12 years during John Stromberg’s three terms as mayor.

Under the new city charter provisions, the mayor, Julie Akins, does not have the authority to hire and fire, as previous mayors have had. And three holdover councilors, Steve Jensen, Stefi Seffinger and Tonya Graham, joined by newly elected councilor Paula Hyatt, have voted as a bloc on many major issues, including for adoption of the largest budget in the city’s history with a built-in structural deficit in the general fund that the finance director said could grow to $15 million by the 2026 fiscal year.

Two newly elected councilors, Gina DuQuenne and Shaun Moran, voted against this budget and have been raising questions about the city’s continuing operations, including raising pay and protecting benefits for city employees in spite of the city’s dire financial condition.

Meanwhile, a lot of attention has gone to the resignations of some top city officials.

Here’s Ashland’s recent history. In the past 12 years, the city had:

  • Five city administrators
  • Four finance directors
  • Three public works directors
  • Four fire chiefs

We’ve had instability in the day-to-day operations of the city government for years, even with one group, the old guard, controlling the City Council and the mayor’s office.

Now this group has organized a mean-spirited attack on Mayor Akins and the two minority councilors, blaming them for: the city attorney’s retirement, the resignations of the city manager pro tem (who’s worked for the city 30 years) and the finance director (who’s had 17 jobs in 25 years) and finally, for creating a toxic atmosphere in City Hall. Really? They’ve been in office for a mere six months and have been out-voted consistently. It all came to a head at the special council meeting June 29, which everyone should watch before making a judgment about the source of discord.

Meanwhile, the council last Tuesday voted not to hire the Rogue Valley Council of Governments to conduct the search for a new city manager at a reasonable rate. Instead, in a 4-2 vote, they decided to pay up to $25,000 to yet another recruitment firm, once again under the guidance of the city’s “old guard” human resources director.

As we see it, change is always difficult. But, by wide margins, city voters last year rejected the policies of the recent past and approved rewriting the city’s charter to professionalize the city government.

As an organization primarily concerned with the economic sustainability of the city government, ACES strongly urges you to continue to support that goal. We believe the city needs to move as swiftly as possible to hire a seasoned, highly qualified city manager who will, in turn, hire a finance director also committed to the city’s financial well being. And, by that, we mean a careful review of existing city services, processes and staffing, and not the imposition of new charges on city residents through raising public utility rates or creating a new taxing authority.

Susan T. Wilson is the treasurer of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability (ACES).