Analysis by Dean Silver

The Ashland City Council held a business meeting last night, May 17, 2022.  Thanks to the absence of two members, Councilors Seffinger and Jensen, the City Council was able to postpone the distribution of the controversial community survey that was scheduled to be mailed to Ashland residents next week.  The survey was intended to poll residents regarding their priorities and preferences for city government spending.

You can watch the meeting here: https://videoplayer.telvue.com/player/w9sPsSE7vna3XTN_39bs1rEXjVWF0kfP/media/720741 . The discussion begins at 18:30 and continues for about 32 minutes.  As always, in order to understand the objections that were raised, it is important to hear the conversation.  There are many more arguments and nuances than can be relayed here.

Councilors Moran and DuQuenne expressed two main concerns.  First, they stated that the Council was not included in the final determination and construction of the questions to be presented.  Their understanding was that this was one of the conditions of the agreement with the City. Second, they took exception to the wording of some of the questions.  Councilor DuQuenne was one of the liaisons to SOURCE during the construction of the questions, so she was well acquainted with the process and the results.

Councilor Moran first raised his concern that the survey questions had not been discussed in an open forum as had been agreed upon previously.  He stated that many of the questions did not seem “objective”, and that many of the concerns he has raised about the budget were not addressed at all, specifically mentioning compensation, the administration department, and outsourcing.

He stated, “I don’t think this questionnaire, as it is, reflects the idea of looking at this objectively… I think it needs to come back to the Council for a discussion.  At the very least, the questions need to be re-looked at and smoothed out a bit.” 

Both Moran and DuQuenne noted that some of the questions assume consequences that are not borne out by facts.  DuQuenne stated, “looking at the words, it comes from a place of fear. ‘If we don’t do this, this will happen.’ And we don’t know that’s going to happen because we don’t have any data that says ‘If we do this, the sky’s gonna fall.’… For me I just don’t feel that it’s ready to go out…. All the information’s not on here.”  She reiterated that “some of the things on here, they are loaded when I read it.  And they are not factual.”

After much discussion, Councilor DuQuenne moved that “I would ask staff to reach out to the consultants so that we can, the consultants and the council, can take a deep dive into this survey before it goes out again.”  Councilor Moran seconded. The vote was 2-2. Mayor Akins voted yes to break the tie, and the motion passed.

The Survey

The survey was designed by SOURCE, the Southern Oregon University Research Center.  A contract with SOURCE was approved by the Council on December 21, 2021, for the sum of $32,313.  A council study session was held February 14, 2022 with SOURCE to discuss the process generalities and specifics.  The original timeline for the survey anticipated that the survey would be mailed out to “all viable utility addresses” in the city during the second week of March.  At this point, the process is about eleven weeks behind schedule.

One of the requirements of the survey specified that the city would facilitate the process. “In order for the respondents to understand the implications of what they are choosing, the City will write brief backgrounds (pros and cons, if appropriate) for each decision on the survey, and the City will also construct a webpage that will contain a full discussion of the pros and cons of each decision on the survey.”

The idea was that since most citizens are not knowledgeable about the city’s finances, this would give them background information with which to make informed decisions.  To my knowledge, this webpage was not constructed.  Thus, the citizens would be receiving a survey asking them to make important decisions about matters with which most of them are not familiar.

The History of Surveys in Ashland

Many residents who had participated in any of the many informal surveys presented on the city website in previous years will probably agree that many, if not most of them, have been biased and manipulative, that is, designed to elicit a desired response rather than to discover what respondents actually think.

It is all too easy to construct leading questions, or questions that present incomplete or misleading choices, inadvertently or deliberately.  It is not easy to construct questions that are neutral and “objective”.  It was hoped that SOURCE would be able to create a neutral, non-manipulative survey.  But judging by Councilor DuQuenne and Moran’s comments, they may not have been successful.

It’s the same old story: garbage in, garbage out.  If the questions are bad, the data will be bad, and the conclusions to be drawn from it will be invalid.  Not having seen the questions, I cannot personally comment upon them.  But if two respected Councilors had such strong reservations about the survey, I believe it is important to pause and reevaluate.

What’s the Hurry?

There can be no doubt that the budget is one of the city’s largest and most urgent problems.  But it’s important that the solutions do not create more problems than they solve. Ashland’s General Fund is racing toward insolvency in the next few years.  But the budget has been appropriated until June 30, 2023, when this biennium ends, and the city will still be “in the black” at that time.  The crisis is urgent, but not immediate.  The next biennial budget will be the critical tool to correct this unsustainable path.

City Manager Joe Lessard has taken meaningful steps to keep the budget crisis from worsening during the next fiscal year, while the City Council has been unable to come to grips with the problem.  His actions will give the city a little more breathing room, and should help keep the crisis from worsening.  Meanwhile, the Council must decide how to solve this puzzle.

Asking the city’s residents to weigh in on these matters is a valid concept.  But we must keep in mind that most residents don’t know or care a whit about the city’s budget and finances.  Most people just pay their taxes and fees, and expect to receive essential municipal services.  They don’t know enough about the details to make informed decisions.  That is one reason we elect Councilors to represent us. 

It is ultimately up to the City Council to decide how to deal with the budget issues.  It won’t be easy.  Different Councilors have different ideas about the best ways to achieve what’s best for the city. No matter how difficult the task, it’s one that they must achieve.  The welfare of the city and every resident depends upon it.

But a flawed survey will not help.  If the citizens are to be surveyed at all, they must be informed about the issues, and the survey must be constructed in such a way to present all of the alternatives in a neutral, non-leading fashion.  Only then will the citizens’ input have any validity.

You can read the contract and background information here: https://www.ashland.or.us/SIB/files/SOU_CC_FINAL.pdf

You can watch the February study session here: https://videoplayer.telvue.com/player/w9sPsSE7vna3XTN_39bs1rEXjVWF0kfP/media/700978

You can read more information about the city’s finances here: https://www.ashland.or.us/SIB/files/CC_FINAL(1).pdf

You can read even more about the city’s finances here: https://theashlandchronicle.com/ashlands-264-million-budget-where-does-all-the-money-go/