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The long road to Ashland recall election

A special election to consider recalling three Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission members has begun, with ballots mailed out Friday to registered voters in the city. Ballots must be returned by March 13.

The recall was launched against commissioners Jim Lewis, Mike Gardiner and Rick Landt after the parks commission unanimously voted to reorganize the Senior Center — a program the commission said operated with little supervision and whose staff resisted change. The reorganization also resulted in the dismissal of the manager of 10 years.

Community members who opposed the decision formed a group called Ashland Support Our Seniors and helped the recall campaign collect the required number of signatures to force an election. The petitioners claim parks commissioners mismanaged funds and personnel, violated public meetings law and disregarded public input and audit recommendations.

City Councilors Stefani Seffinger and Dennis Slattery have advocated on their personal Facebook accounts for voters to vote no on the recall. Councilor Rich Rosenthal in November urged residents not to sign the recall petitions.

Mayor John Stromberg, in a recent guest opinion published in the Tidings, said he will vote no on the recalls.

Ballots must be received at the Jackson County elections office or in an official ballot drop box no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 13, in order to be counted. Postmarks do not count.

Here’s the timeline of how we got here:

November 2016: Then-Senior Center Manager Christine Dodson and the advisory board discussed the possibility of transferring the Senior Center out of the Parks and Recreation Department, according to Senior Center subcommittee meeting minutes.

Jan. 24, 2017: Commissioners Gardiner and Lewis and Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black expressed dismay when they learned of the transfer discussion, according to the meeting minutes.

February through May: The subcommittee met four times to reevaluate the Senior Center’s structure. Dodson was asked to provide information to aid the effort.

Aug. 8: The subcommittee unanimously agreed to recommend the reorganization.

Aug. 9: Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC) unanimously voted to adopt the recommendation, which included the dismissal of Dodson.

Aug. 23: Black sent a layoff notice to Dodson, effective Oct. 1.

Aug. 31: Four Senior Center part-time employees resigned in support of Dodson, according to a letter to the editor sent by the employees in December.

Oct. 10: Ashland Senior Program Advisory Committee met for the first time. The committee includes program participants, related-field experts from Ashland at Home and Rogue Valley Council of Governments, two parks commissioners and a city councilor. The committee has been meeting monthly to draft new recommendations by March 2018.

Nov. 8 and 9: A campaign to recall commissioners Landt, Lewis and Gardiner was launched. The campaign, filed by Mary Sundberg, Mary Canfield and Avram Chetron, was supported by a group called Support Our Seniors. The petitions claim the commissioners mismanaged the parks department’s $9 million annual budget, resulting in a projected $5.9 million deficit by 2021-23, mismanaged personnel, repeatedly failed to follow Oregon Public Meetings Law, approved spending $230,000 on a consultant to develop a Lithia Park master plan and ignored two specific recommendations from a 2016 audit regarding making changes within the department. The bulk of the projected deficit was later attributed to a finance department error that affected the entire city budget.

Dec. 20: APRC signed a $15,000, six-month contract with Rogue Valley Council Of Government to bring in a weekly referral specialist to the senior center, Black announced.

Dec. 22: Dorothy Parsons, one of four former Senior Center part-time employees, filed an age discrimination claim with the Bureau of Labor and Industries, according to a document obtained by the Tidings. A BOLI spokesperson confirmed a pending investigation.

Jan. 5: Dodson filed a tort claim notice with the city of Ashland, alleging she was wrongfully dismissed, documents obtained by the Tidings revealed.

Jan. 22: APRC unanimously approved the recommendations from an ad-hoc committee for a separate Senior Center division, new program description and a conceptual job description for a new manager.

Jan. 25:

  • The Tidings learned of an ethics complaint against advisory committee member Laura O’Bryon, who also works for RVCOG. Oregon Ethics Commission confirmed of a preliminary investigation of 30 days.
  • Recall petitioners submitted signatures from Ashland voters to the city of Ashland recorder’s office to initiate the recall.

Jan. 26: City recorder forwarded the petition to Jackson County Clerk’s office for signature verification.

Feb.1: Black said Dodson was dismissed after the parks commission found the center's staff operated with little oversight and resisted change when the center was performing at below-satisfactory levels, the Tidings reported.

Feb. 2: The Jackson County Clerk’s Office confirmed the petitioners had collected the required number of signatures— at least 15 percent of Ashland's registered voters, or 1,566 signatures — to initiate a recall vote against each commissioner. The election date was set for March 13 and will cost the city an estimated $25,000 to $30,000.

Feb. 7:

  • The three commissioners decline to resign, submitting their letters of justification to the County Clerk’s office.
  • Lewis filed a complaint against the claims used in the recall petition to the Oregon Elections Division, saying the claims are baseless.

Feb. 9: The Bureau of Labor and Industry issued a note to dismiss Parsons’ age discrimination claim due to lack of substantial evidence, according to documents obtained by the Tidings.

Feb. 12: Ad-hoc committee agreed to recommend the parks commission hire a Senior Center superintendent and increase personnel by one full-time position at the center, which would lead to cuts in other programs in the Parks and Recreation Department. It also recommended creation of an advisory board to include a parks commissioner, a city councilor and five citizen members.

Feb. 13: City Finance Director Mark Welch said the city's budget was approved with incorrect projections and that the city was working to amend its budget after the petitioners cited a projected Parks and Recreation Department deficit in the recall campaign. He said a revised projection reduces the parks’ 2021-23 estimated deficit by nearly 90 percent, from $5.9 million to $600,000.

Feb. 23: The Jackson County Clerk’s office mailed out ballots for the special election.

March 1: Citizens’ Budget Committee will hold an informational meeting in the wake of the Tidings report on the incorrect projections. Members said they asked about the projected deficits during the budget process, but their questions were not answered.

March 12: The Senior Center ad hoc committee will finalize its full list of recommendations before presenting them to the Parks and Recreation Commission for approval.

March 13: Polls will close at 8 p.m. and results will be tallied on the three recalls. If Ashland voters vote the commissioners out, the City Council will appoint new commissioners to fill the vacant spots until the next election.

— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.