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Public options and the common good

Part One

I recently read an opinion piece in the New York Times by two professors of law, Ganesh Sitaraman (Vanderbilt) and Anne L. Alstott (Yale), in which they advocated that “There should be a public option for everything.” What was compelling about the piece was how they reframed the idea of a public option, acknowledging that during the 2010 health care debate that was, for a time, considered. The intent being that people would have the option of buying into the government-run Medicare program.

They suggest that we should broaden the definition of the public option well beyond health care to include places and spaces dedicated to the common good. Examples would be public parks, libraries, hiking trails, tennis courts, public golf courses, public schools, public transportation and more. Even a park or plaza bench, such as it is, represents a public option. It is inclusive, to be used by anyone, beckoning the passerby to stop, sit a moment, look at the sky, take notice of the trees or the people walking by.

Pause and consider our own community of Ashland and the spectrum of public options. In this town of some 20,000 people there are 18 parks (797 acres), 48 miles of trails, as well as a plethora of public options mirroring those mentioned above, all dedicated to the common good, and all funded by the citizens of Ashland.

One example is the Daniel Meyer Pool (DMP), which is operated by the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. Opened in 1983, it was one of two public pools in the community. The other was an indoor pool at Southern Oregon University that closed in 2015. This closure transformed DMP from a seasonal site to one that was year-round with contracted-user groups such as high school swim teams, water polo teams, masters swimming plus other groups.

What was occurring was a nexus of higher utilization while DMP neared the end of its useful life. As a result, necessary and costly repairs, beyond daily maintenance, began to plague the pool, creating issues of health and safety, which resulted in an early closing this summer.

A decision regarding DMP had to be made by the Parks and Recreation Commission and by extension the community, prompting a fundamental question: was DMP valued as a public option? And if the answer is in the affirmative, where to go next?

What was set in motion by APRC was a series of responses, when viewed in the aggregate, that demonstrate our community’s commitment to not only the common good but to a Democratic process that we take for granted but is, actually, extraordinary.

Consider the conclusion that DMP should remain as a public option. As a result a spectrum of questions then follow. For example, where? And at what cost? Should the footprint be dramatically changed (length, width, depth — impacting competitive swimming — plus the issue of a seasonal cover)?

And so it began with APRC, in 2018, creating a Pool Ad Hoc Committee comprising volunteers and staff. Subcommittees were formed to address the aquatic needs of the Ashland community, including a needs analysis and usability study. Other pool sites were considered, best use designs examined and funding options evaluated. Two public listening sessions gathered input regarding aquatic needs, while continually judging the desire by the community for a public pool. A survey of 2,500 randomly selected residents was mailed out complementing the listening sessions.

From the above efforts by APRC and the committed work of the Pool Ad Hoc Committee an analysis/profile was created and a pool design began to come together along with a funding option. But more about those results in Part Two.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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