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City's policy, efforts aim for diversity, but numbers show shortfall

Just more than a quarter of the city of Ashland's managerial staff — and none of its appointed department heads — are female, a statistic described by a former councilor as an "institutional problem" but viewed by the city administrator as a "snapshot in time" that doesn't reflect the city's recruiting efforts.

As the city of Ashland prepares to file a job posting by February and begin the recruiting process for a new police chief, former City Councilor Eric Navickas and his wife say those who are a part of the hiring process need to focus on diversifying the city’s workforce from department heads down.

Currently, all nine of the city’s department heads — those who are hired by way of the mayor and City Council's approval — are white males, while 29 percent of the entire 247-person workforce is female, excluding seasonal and temporary employees.

“When these problems arise they usually reinforce themselves. So you get this cloistering troupe of white men, and they continue to hire more white men, and it's up to citizens … to check these problem and force a remedy,” said Navickas, who divides his time between Ashland and his rural farm just outside Prospect.

“I don’t want to point fingers or say it’s any specific person, it’s an institutional problem,” Navickas said.

Of the 247 full-time, permanent employees at the city of Ashland, 175 are male and 72 are female. Of the department heads, managers and supervisors, there are 32 males and 11 females, according to data provided by City Administrator Dave Kanner, who makes recommendations to the mayor and council members concerning the nine department head appointments and recruiting efforts.

In Jackson County, just over 51 percent of the population is female, according to 2013 U.S. Census estimates.

“It is true that all of our current department heads are white males, but our management staff goes much deeper than the department head level,” Kanner said in an email. “We have adhered to both the letter and intent of our policy.

"The fact that all of our department heads are currently white males is not evidence that we haven’t done so," he said. "It’s a snapshot in time of the results of recent recruitments that were conducted fairly and consistent with our Affirmative Action Policy.”

The city's Affirmative Action and recruiting policy makes it a requirement to: "employ qualified women and minorities in all job categories in proportion to their availability in the labor market.” The city’s recruitment policy requires positions that have a history of underutilization of female and minority employees to be recruited in a way that will attract a more diverse applicant pool.

Kanner noted that the city's policy states that in recruiting for more prominent or specialized positions, "recruitment trips outside the local area may be made to solicit applications from minorities and women."

"A minimum of one recruitment resource with a targeted minority audience will be utilized when recruiting for positions in this category,” the policy continues.

The city, Kanner wrote, has made every effort in its hirings to “absolutely and unequivocally,” follow the letter and intent of its policy and will continue to do so. He also suggested Ashland's managerial makeup would stand up well compared with other governments in the area.

"My guess is that we are actually one of the more diverse local government staffs in the Rogue Valley," Kanner said.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg defended the city’s hiring efforts in an email to the Tidings after an earlier article, writing: “What can't be deduced from the current make-up of the city staff is that this is due to lack of effort to recruit qualified women or minority candidates, as required by our Affirmative Action Policy as well as the personal values of the City Council, myself, the city administrator, city attorney and our (human resources) manager.

“(In the last four years), there have been four hiring processes: two for (Ashland Fiber Network)/Electric Director, one for city attorney and one for the current city administrator. ... In two of these recruitments, including our most recent recruitment for city administrator, women were selected as finalists. However, the Affirmative Action Policy does not require us to hire minority or female candidates. It states, ‘All employment actions will be made without regard to race, religion, color, sex, age, disability (perceived or known), national origin, or any other basis prohibited by law.’ We followed that policy and hired the candidates we determined were best qualified.” 

But Amy Goddard-Navickas thinks something has gone astray with the city's hiring process.

“I think that they are not trying hard enough. If you think of (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and the efforts that they go through to find qualified actors that are people of color or women and giving them the opportunity to do world-class theater, then why can’t the city of Ashland do it?” said Goddard-Navickas, an Ashland activist, organic farmer and artist who is married to Eric Navickas.

“I just think that it is important that the city of Ashland diversify their managerial staff to include more women and minorities," she said. "… These are positions of power and if they’re not equally represented we won’t be able to see if that’s helpful for society. I think it will only help government; it’s a more accurate representation of society.”

Ashland resident Jason Houk, who addressed city councilors during a study session on Jan. 5, said he doesn’t see the city’s hiring practices as sexist or racist.

“I don’t see it as much of a problem with race or gender; I see it as more of a class and social divide,” he said.

Addressing the council, Houk brought up the city’s affirmative action policy and highlighted the responsibility it carries.

“My main point about our affirmative action policy is we have created this policy in the spirit of encouraging our diversity. I like that the language empowers us and the City Council with the ability to go find the right candidate for Ashland,” he said.

Soon-to-retire Police Chief Terry Holderness told councilors in that meeting that he has an internal candidate — whom he did not identify — in mind for the job, but said he would be open and willing to consider any candidate for the position.

Houk said Holderness' suggestion should be given strong consideration.

“That is someone who is committed to the community and keeping roots here, because we want a police chief that’s going to be around for a while,” Houk said. "Chief Holderness is a great example of someone who has put in some time with this community and we need candidates like that."

Current City Councilor Pam Marsh wrote in an email to the Tidings that, "Corey Falls, an African American, was hired and trained by the city, and would no doubt have been our next chief (if he had not been elected county sheriff) — an outcome that would have undermined any legitimacy to this whole argument. ... That's a pretty darn great outcome, and the city's hiring and training practices are largely responsible."

Navickas and Goddard-Navickas said they both plan to contact city councilors as the recruitment process for a new chief gets under way.

Reach freelance reporter Sam Wheeler at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.