Turmoil Continues at Ashland’s City Hall; Golden Handshake for Lessard

Turmoil Continues in City Hall; Golden Handshake for Lessard


By David Runkel


Ashland’s departing City Manager Joe Lessard apparently will be getting a golden handshake. 


His departure package will be the subject of a special City Council meeting Friday evening.  The employment contract he signed with the city in December 2021, however, spells out a termination arrangement  –  if he departs anytime during his first two years he’s entitled for severance equal to a full year’s pay, at least $171,651.


No one in a position to know was willing to talk about Lessard’s resignation yesterday.  Mayor Graham told The Chronicle she would have nothing to say until Friday’s special council meeting.  Lessard responded to an email inquiry about his future plans with an automatic response message from last summer –  “Thank you for your email.  I will be out of the office June 22nd through July 4th and will be without access to my email.”  


Lessard’s resignation leaves the city government facing another major upheaval.


Last year, it was the resignation of Mayor Julie Akins and Councilor Shaun Moran over their inability to move forward their agenda, harsh comments from other councilors and punitive actions by Lessard.


That resulted in the elevation of Councilor Tonya Graham to the mayor’s position and the appointment of two persons to the Council who had never run for public office. 


Now it’s Lessard’s abrupt resignation reportedly as a result of unhappiness by Mayor Graham and councilors with his handling of a series of issues.  He is Ashland’s first full time city manager, but follows two short term interim managers and the ouster of city administrator Dave Kanner by former mayor John Stromberg.  All this in the last five years.


The Council’s Friday agenda does not include any mention of selection of a temporary replacement, although Deputy City Manager Sabrina Cotta is the obvious choice.  She had applied for the manager’s position two years ago and reportedly had the support of some on Council then. She did not have as strong a resume, however, as the 69-year-old Lessard who had been an assistant city manager in Austin, Texas.


Cotta’s previous job was director of administrative and internal services for the Pueblo West Metropolitan District in Southern Colorado, supervising 14 workers.   It is the local government in an unincorporated section of Pueblo County with 33,000 residents.   While it provides parks, fire, public works, water and wastewater services, the county government controls police, planning and zoning. 


What is it that makes Ashland so hard to govern?  Is it personal, or is it policy driven, or is it a combination of both.  In the last ten years, the city has had five people in the administrator/manager
position and eight in the finance director role.


During her two years as mayor,  Akins was repeatedly attacked personally by then Councilors Graham and Steve Jensen.   In part, the unpleasantness led to her decision to resign.  Ending insurance benefits to the mayor and councilors by Lessard also contributed. 


Lessard’s downfall, on the other hand, likely was due to a series of missteps.  The most recent was the recommendation to buy the former office building at 2200 Ashland street and convert it into a homeless shelter without any consultation with city residents, in particular those living nearby.


The recommendation, unanimously accepted by Council, had the following problems:


– No appraisal of the building was made and the purchase price of $2 million was  $650,000 more than the county tax office’s current value estimate.  While $1.4 million in state homeless grant money was used for a down payment, the purchase agreement includes a $600,000 note to the seller to be paid off by the city over 20 years with $254,000 in interest charges. 


– The building outfitted with 33 cots, but only two bathrooms, has major fire code violations which had not been identified before the purchase agreement was signed and Fire Chief Ralph Sartain has yet to grant an occupancy permit.   The city does not have the money to pay for installation of a fire suppression sprinkler system, larger windows and other changes necessary to bring the building up to code, according to Lessard.


– The building is two blocks from the city’s other major homeless site, the former Super 8 motel with 52 rooms operated by Options for Housing, Resources and Assistance (OHRA) which will also oversee the new facility.  Nearby residents, businesses and property owners have complained about the concentration of homeless services in one section of the city. 


– Although promises have been made to neighboring residents to screen the property, that is not going to happen any time soon.


In addition to the shelter issues other factors that may have contributed to Lessard’s departure are:


– The 2023-25 city budget he proposed with general fund expenditures exceeding projected income by more than $7 million.   This was accepted by the Council.  Some of this deficit is covered from cost savings on unfilled city positions during Covid years while the rest will lead to lower ending fund balances, the term used for the city’s savings account.  City Finance Director Mariana Berry told Council last week that fiscal issues must be addressed soon. 


– The process for filling the vacant position of recorder that did not include any public participation.  The recorder is an elected official, but the replacement for Melissa Hutuha is a city staffer selected by the manager’s office and presented to the Council as a done deal.  


– A staff survey gave the manager’s office a relatively low grade of 51 percent negative rating with many comments about lack of timely responses for information and/or assistance.


In addition to his salary, retirement, medical benefits and the severance plan Lessard’s compensation package included relocation costs up to $20,000, rental assistance of $2,500 for a maximum of six months, a $400 a month car allowance, additional mileage payment for trips of more than 50 miles, four weeks of vacation and 80 hours of professional training leave.

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