Message to Ashland City Council – “You Work for All the Citizens of Ashland – Let Democracy Work or Get Out of the Way”

Message to Ashland City Council – “You Work for All the Citizens of Ashland – Let Democracy Work or Get Out of the Way”

By Carol Voisin

The Ashland City Council business meeting of April 18, 2017, demonstrated neither democracy nor civility.  When citizens presented their opposition to the “new” budget process and urged a more traditional, transparent approach, one that would offer a more accurate picture of the budget, their comments fell on deaf ears.  When citizens expressed opposition to the hiring of five new police officers and suggested alternatives, including one tailored to meet the actual need for an increased downtown police presence during tourist season, again their comments fell on deaf ears.  When citizens presented their opposition to the increased utility tax to pay for the five new police officers and suggested other uses for the $560,000 cost of these new officers, the council again closed its ears and minds.

On April 19th and 20th, the council and mayor met to discuss budget priorities and would not allow for any public comment. This departure from past years’ process was unsettling to everyone except the staff and the mayor.  The budget discussions also excluded the seven appointed members of the Citizens Budget Committee, who were only allowed to observe.  The mayor reportedly only wanted to “get this done,” which begs the question, why the big hurry?

During the ensuing priorities discussion, most councilors expressed feeling uninformed, and staff was woefully unprepared.  In fact, during their discussion an additional $800,000 in revenue was disclosed, which came as news to both staff and council members.  It became clear that the one person in the room who was informed about such details and the rushed agenda was the mayor.

During the business meeting of April 18th, there was also a notable lack of civility.  Councilors often report that when citizens lack the ability to engage in civil conversation with council, they should not expect action from council.  The council insists that they simply shut down in the face of uncivil discourse.  Civility means to speak gently, with truth and respect.  On the 18th, councilors modeled a discourse that was the polar opposite of what they demand from citizens.  Regrettably, this is not the first time this has occurred; but this meeting was notable for its rudeness.

Councilors failed to respect the recommendations of the Housing and Human Resources Commission regarding social service grant allocations.  Instead of a respectful line of questions put to commission representatives, councilors presented misinformation and “alternative facts” regarding the only non-profit organization in Ashland dedicated to the poor and homeless―Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland (OHRA).  First, councilors demanded―uniquely among all organizations requesting grant funding―that OHRA submit a detailed fundraising approach and strategic plan; no other applicants were asked to provide this.  Second, councilors attacked a woman who serves on both the commission and the OHRA board, accusing her of an ethics violation because she failed to recuse herself from the commission’s vote.  The councilors didn’t even know whether she had in fact voted, nor did they know what the vote outcome was; the commission’s staff liaison person didn’t know either.  Nevertheless, absent any facts, council decided to penalize OHRA for this imagined indiscretion.  Apparently, the City Council has assumed for itself an entirely new role in our community―that of judge, jury, and executioner―whenever they perceive something to be out of order.

The grant from the commission to OHRA was to be $40,000. But out of thin air, one councilor decided it must be reduced to $5,000.  Another councilor decided that the $800+ overpayment to be paid to the city, which was to have been divided equally among all recipients, would be deducted solely from the OHRA grant, reducing it to $4,200.  The unfounded charges levied against a respected member of our community, a woman, were sexist, uncivil, and based on lies.

This deplorable and entirely uncalled for behavior on the part of the Ashland City Council represents a complete abrogation of the council’s obligation to fairly and civilly represent the people and the interests of the city of Ashland.

Our elected representatives appear to have forgotten that democracy is a process that must be of, by, and for the people.  What it is most emphatically not is government of and for the staff, and by the mayor and council. It’s true, we just had an election. But that doesn’t mean it’s time for the people to clam up and go away. For democratic processes to work, the people must remain informed and continually express to the council their values and priorities. The council should then shape its goals and policies to meet those values and priorities. Lastly, staff should implement the policy, following direction from council.  In the city of Ashland, this process is too often turned on its head.  I believe a paradigm shift is on its way.