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Will Ashland PAC help or hurt?

Ashland candidates said they won't know until election night whether a controversial political action committee has hurt or helped those it endorsed.

The Ashland Residents for a Great City Council PAC has run ads in favor of incumbent Councilman Greg Lemhouse and council candidates Jackie Agee and Rich Rosenthal.

The PAC has run ads and sent mailers against three more liberal candidates, sitting Councilwoman Carol Voisin and candidates Regina Ayars and Keith Haxton.

According to the latest campaign filings with the Secretary of State's Office, the PAC has collected $6,095 and spent $5,971 so far.

Lemhouse said he doesn't know whether the PAC's actions are helping or hurting his candidacy.

"I respect anyone who is willing to run and I have nothing bad to say about Keith," Lemhouse said about Haxton, who is his opponent for council Position 3. "I think the PAC is made up of well-meaning people who are trying to be involved, but I personally don't agree with putting out negative advertising."

The PAC, which says it backs moderate to slightly left-leaning candidates, formed for the 2008 election under the name League of Ashland Voters when two more liberal PACs were operating in town.

The liberal PACs weren't active in 2010 or this year, but the moderate PAC continued operating under the new name.

Many political observers think the PAC was successful in helping to oust liberal council members Cate Hartzell and Eric Navickas in past years.

It is repeating its past tactic of publishing information on candidate votes and actions that it finds objectionable.

"PACs are entitled to their opinions under the First Amendment, but the manner in which the PAC has expressed its opinions has obviously rubbed some people the wrong way," said Rosenthal, who is running against Ayars and Bruce Harrell for Position 5.

Rosenthal said candidates and voters won't find out until election night what impact the PAC has had.

Like the other candidates endorsed by the PAC, Rosenthal said he has had nothing to do with its advertisements and mailers. His campaign is legally barred from coordinating with the PAC.

"This was not Rich Rosenthal stating an opinion about Regina Ayars," Rosenthal said. "I'm running a positive campaign."

The PAC has been most vocal in its advertising against Voisin, running a list of her council votes that it finds objectionable.

Voisin's challenger, Agee, said the PAC is probably helping her, Lemhouse and Rosenthal more than it's hurting them. Agee and Voisin are vying for Position 1 on the council.

Agee said she has heard from residents that they find the information put out by the PAC to be informative.

"It's not character assassination," Agee said. "That would be terrible. Anything that gets information out to people can be useful in deciding who to vote for. We're all busy, and some people don't pay much attention to politics."

For her part, Voisin said the PAC has taken her votes out of context and falsely accused her of having conflicts of interest on some votes.

"They've maliciously twisted the facts," she said.

Voisin, a Southern Oregon University instructor, said she objects to the accusation, for example, that she had a conflict of interest when she supported lowering parade permit costs for a student group.

Voisin said she had no financial stake that constituted any conflict of interest and just wanted to help cash-strapped students get involved with democracy through their parade.

Voisin said she devoted a week to preparing written responses to the PAC's allegations. She has posted those detailed responses on her campaign website.

That effort took her away from her campaigning and family responsibilities, Voisin said.

"It worked. I had to change my focus for about a week," she said.

Ayars said she also has had to respond to allegations that, for example, she was a poor leader of the Ashland League of Women Voters.

Ayars said the Ashland league hasn't disappeared, just joined forces with others to create a stronger Rogue Valley League of Women Voters.

Haxton, a homeless community organizer, has been described as a homeless revolutionary by the PAC.

Voisin said the three candidates targeted by the PAC didn't want to run together as a slate, but they did join forces recently to send out a mailer decrying the PAC's negative campaigning and "misleading, mean-spirited attacks."

The mailer included statements of their positions on issues and included quotes from supporters.

PAC founder Bill Heimann — a bicycle safety instructor and Ashland Citizens Budget Committee member — said a vocal minority has been complaining about the actions of the PAC, but a number of people are also thanking him for putting out information.

He said voters will read the information put out by his PAC and the countering arguments from Voisin, Ayars and Haxton.

"We've created discussion," Heimann said.

Heimann said nothing he has published about Voisin has been false, and he welcomes her efforts to offer reasons for voting the way she has.

"It's up to voters to decide if that's a good reason or not," Heimann said.

He said he founded the PAC several years ago when the Ashland City Council was so dysfunctional that members hired a counselor to help them learn how to get along.

The $37,000 counseling sessions attracted national media attention and ridicule from late-night comedians.

Heimann said the PAC has helped nondogmatic problem-solvers win seats on the City Council.

He said it's ridiculous to say that the PAC's purpose is to support the wealthy elite, as some have claimed.

At a rally against his PAC earlier this month, Heimann told residents gathered there that this would be the last year the PAC operates.

This week, Heimann said he wouldn't rule out the possibility that the PAC could be active for the next election.

"Never say never," he said.

The PAC has not taken any stance on the Ashland mayoral contest between sitting Mayor John Stromberg, former Mayor Alan DeBoer and political newcomer Keith "Biome" Michael Erickson.

Alan DeBoer's brother, Lithia Motors board Chairman Sid DeBoer, is the PAC's largest contributor, with a donation of $1,000. Alan DeBoer said he asked the PAC not to get involved in the mayoral race.

"The mayoral race is about us," Alan DeBoer said. "It's not negative."

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.