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Rift: Proposed charter changes are dividing Ashland

Charges that the town's crown jewel, Lithia Park, and its municipal water could be sold to private interests have cast shadows over a three-year-long attempt by city officials to adopt a new, modernized city charter.

Saying it shrinks the democratic process, opponents are also urging thumbs-down on another ballot measure that would give the city manager, not the mayor, the power to hire and fire department heads.

Ashland residents will vote on the changes in the May 15 election.

"The changes have been sold to the public as streamlining and modernization, but they allow privatization of our water," said opponent John Fisher-Smith. "It's not about streamlining, but rather privatization and centralizing power."

The revised charter, which takes the form of a much shorter "model charter" advised by the League of Oregon Cities, removes language that is now covered by state or federal law or should be put in city ordinances, said Councilman David Chapman.

He and two other council members, Kate Jackson and Russ Silbiger, plus the tie-breaking Mayor John Morrison, voted to put it on the ballot.

A flurry of e-mails, Web blogging and letters to local newspapers ensued. Opposition leader Art Bullock, head of AshlandConstitution.org, passed out leaflets charging, "The proposed charter gives city the power to sell Lithia Park to developers "¦ empowers city to sell Ashland's water to corporations without charter restrictions on quantity or purpose."

A one-word change about Ashland's water, saying it may be sold to "residents," rather than "inhabitants," as stated in the present charter, was read by opponents as removing safeguards against marketing to corporate interests.

Councilman Eric Navickas said the present charter assures water "can never be privatized, in perpetuity. A resident can be a private business, but an inhabitant is an individual citizen."

But Chapman disputed that, saying, with that interpretation, local breweries and coffee shops wouldn't be able to use city water to make and sell their products. "And anyway, we don't have enough water to sell to Coca-Cola. It ain't gonna happen."

A "blunder" in the new charter process omitted protections against sale of Lithia Park, Chapman said, but state law prohibits sale of parklands unless they're no longer used for a park.

While Councilwoman Cate Hartzell acknowledged the much-visited Lithia Park likely would not be sold, she said there are properties in the upper park, surrounded by desirable homes, that could be sold if the city needed the money. She put North Mountain Park and Oredson-Todd Park in the same category, noting the city would only have to find "a purpose in the public good," such as paying Ashland Fiber Network debt or building a new fire station.

Backers of the new charter say if it passes, they will put park protections in ordinances. But Hartzell noted, "It's important people realize an ordinance can later be changed in two meetings, by a majority of the council."

Chapman, who served on the Charter Review Committee before being named to the City Council, countered that any official who sold the park or water to corporations would be quickly recalled.

Jackson charged opposition is being fueled by "alarmists," that its campaign around park and water sales is "being brought up to confuse voters "¦ and is burying the report of the Charter Review Committee."

Jackson said the old charter is being revised using clear language and "giving the city as a home-rule city the broadest powers available. It's needed to clean up a lot of references that have been superseded by state law and to make it harder to challenge the charter in court."

Jackson said the new charter keeps the elected recorder and judge, a parks commission that has undisputed power over what happens to parks and "it keeps our ability to have our own utilities — water, wastewater, electricity and Internet."

Bullock said in his statement in the voter's pamphlet that the new charter reduces residents' powers to contest local improvement districts, allows the council to set its own salaries and gives the council "all powers possible" instead of "general powers."

Jackson charged that Bullock is "a fearmonger who uses emotional words, raises people's fears and incorrectly uses people's comments in ways that are untruthful."

Navickas said Bullock and other opponents of the new charter represent "a lot of positive public input, a grassroots organization that is really critical to the democratic process."

Hartzell said Bullock has raised significant issues and "what will be important to the city 20 years from now will be the mistakes (in the new charter), not Art Bullock's personal style. I want to believe citizen dialogue is essential "¦ and if it contributes to a better charter, then you're seeing democracy at work. Just because people try to improve things doesn't mean they are somehow obstructive."

Jackson said the Charter Review Committee was a "blue ribbon committee of nine long-term residents," including former council members and representatives from the League of Women Voters, Southern Oregon University and other prominent organizations.

The shift to a city manager with firing and hiring power for department heads was favorably received by 90 percent of people during citizen comment sessions, then approved unanimously by the Charter Review Committee, said Chapman.

He favors the change because the mayor and council should set policy and the city manager should be the chief operating officer, he said.

"Now, we've got a city administrator (Martha Bennett) trying to manage the city, yet the people under her are hired and fired by six other people. It doesn't make sense to me and it gets into political game playing," he said.

"If the council is upset, they can fire the city manager. That's the check-and-balance."

Opposing the city manager system in the voter's pamphlet are former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw, Sen. Alan Bates, Rep. Peter Buckley, former Congressman Les AuCoin, Jackson County Commissioner Dave Gilmour and former Commissioner Jeff Golden.

Their statement said the present "strong mayor" system supports community involvement, allows the mayor to hand power, as needed, to the city administrator, allows voters to remove mayors who "run amuck" with their power and allows for the conflict that makes better, more responsive decisions.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Rift: Proposed charter changes are dividing Ashland