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Residents blast Ashland council

Some call for members to resign over communications 'training,' infighting; mayor defends the body

ASHLAND -- Stung by criticism of rude behavior at public meetings -- and the decision to spend $37,000 to train for better communication and improvement of manners -- the Ashland City Council seemed to set a new course Tuesday night, with Mayor John Morrison vowing to keep council members under control and profanity-free.

However, Morrison said while he takes the criticisms of the council to heart, the five-month training in communications, leadership and procedures is a necessary tool in management and will go forward.

"We hope to move ahead in a manner that won't earn us notoriety," he said, a reference to the brouhaha following last week's announcement of the training and one council member calling another by the f-word at a public meeting.

Members of the public at Tuesday's meeting were mostly unswayed, with some calling members childish, self-serving, an embarrassment to the city (the story made national news) -- and even calling on them to resign.

During the public comment period, resident Bill Skillman said the training was inappropriate. He said it is "spending tax dollars on personal behavior therapy" and could be better used for libraries.

Skillman added that the credibility of the council has been compromised.

"It's embarrassing to live in a city that behaves in this manner," he said.

Plaza business owner Richard Hansen, who earlier tried to organize a recall of two council members, called on the entire council to resign to see if the public picks any of them for a new council.

"I've never seen such a dysfunctional city council," said Hansen, who has lived in Ashland for 35 years. "You're supposed to be mature, responsible adults."

In his remarks opening the council meeting, Morrison pointed out the significant workload and the stresses of balancing various city interests.

He also said voters "made this council and this mix of people and you didn't get them here to hold hands and dance in a circle."

"They're intelligent people and sometimes intelligent people clash," he said.

Morrison noted the training was set up before the recent, highly publicized dispute between councilmen David Chapman and Eric Navickas, punctuated with interruptions and profanity.

The mayor's appeal won kudos from Mat Marr, chairman of the Ashland School Board, who said the trainings, led by Dr. Rick Kirschner of Ashland, have enhanced effective leadership on his board and brought positive changes for students. He predicted it would have the same beneficial results for the council.

Marr said that, while many residents have criticized the cost, it's "an incredibly good investment."

However, Jennifer Carr, who served on a city council in Colorado, chided Morrison, saying, "The mayor bemoans that they have so much work. I found your comments really naïve and juvenile."

Carr suggested the council resign or be recalled, adding, "You should take your collective thumbs out of your mouth and grow up."

The training, she said, was "silly, absolutely appalling and embarrassing for this city."

Former Ashland firefighter Bill Phillips said he is "disturbed by the dysfunctionality" of the council and called for stronger leadership from the mayor to keep things in line.

Tanya Ozone disputed the mayor's statement that the trainings were scheduled before the Chapman-Navickas outburst and demanded to see public records of the decision. She also denounced Morrison's statement that new councilors only get a small handbook, but no training and have to "fly by the seat of their pants."

Said Ozone, "That's poor justification for a training. If you don't feel up to the job I suggest you resign .... and if the training is that important, how about you footing some of the bill?"

Resident Donald Stone said council members should have learned in grade school "not to talk out of turn, to keep a civil tongue in your head, to listen" and he faulted Councilwoman Cate Hartzell for recently stalling her vote, in order to run out the clock by 10 p.m.

"With the national coverage on this, you could be called a laughing stock. I would suggest you grow up," Stone said.

The besieged council found support from Planning Commission Chairman John Stromberg, who said "until you serve, you don't have a glimpse of the staggering work load, the pressure and the work of trying to represent differing goals and values to find consensus."

"People have been saying, What's wrong with the City Council and why doesn't the mayor lead?' Well, by God, the mayor (in setting up the training) is leading," Stromberg said.

Regular City Council gadfly Art Bullock said the group training sessions, which start Saturday, are a quorum and therefore fall under the public meetings law. He said the city recorder refused to tell him where and when the sessions were being held.

Kirschner, the trainer, said the public outrage, spread by talk radio and online message boards, was triggered by news reports misrepresenting it as "therapy" and tying it to the Chapman-Navickas dust-up.

"It's not therapy. It isn't about dealing with childhood issues," said Kirschner in an interview. "There was a lot of venting, nastiness and venom in postings on message boards, which is anonymous, cowardly and not accountable."

Kirschner said he has led trainings to build communication, teamwork and understanding of process for 26 years and written a book on it called "Dealing with People You Can't Stand: How to Bring out the Best in People at Their Worst." He interviewed each council member and will present five group sessions of 2 to 31/2 hours, augmented with individual sessions long enough to produce "what it takes for a successful outcome.

"It's going to take a long time to get change to happen," he said.

Some of the council member's exchanges, Kirschner added, are "stress responses, which are not the reaction of a person thinking clearly at that moment. They get their buttons pushed and it happens to the best of people. Then people with a dog in the fight root for their dog and oppose the other dog."

The council problem also extends to citizens, and "the nastiness, polarization and jumping to conclusions is not helping Ashland," Kirschner said.

Morrison, in an interview, said the training will provide council members with skills in group dynamics and "I disagree it's therapy. It's professional training -- it's perfectly all right to do, to improve skills and help people move up the ladder. But somehow, it doesn't apply to elected officials, though they come with the desire to help the community? Why is it wrong if you invest in the skills of who you vote for?"

Morrison acknowledged the training is expensive, but not if it's broken down by the hour -- and, he added, it's cheaper than a recall election and helps council members be "more confident, comfortable and effective."

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