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Keep Ashland exceptional: Vote no on Measure 15-189

Have you ever wondered what makes Ashland so special? Why we have so many parks and open spaces; why our forests are healthy; and how we got our recycling program? Ashland is the most successful city of its size in Oregon, and there’s a reason: It is because of robust citizen participation and community engagement.

Or, to put it another way, it is because citizens are able to participate.

Ashland has a unique governance model. Unlike many other cities of its size, Ashland’s mayor is a true executive. Together with the administrator and council, a mayor sets the political course of the city. Further, a mayor works for you: the voters that put him or her in office.

Measure 15-189 would change this balance of power. If passed, it would transform our town to a council/manager form of government, giving all department-head appointment power to a city manager without requiring any input from elected officials; this could have a profound impact on policy direction of the city. Unlike a mayor, who faces elections, a city manager is wholly unaccountable to the community or the mayor.

At a time when political participation is more important than ever, why vote away your power?

Ironically, when I ran for mayor of Ashland, my support came largely from citizens who believed the city administrator had too much power. Citizens also wanted a more robust environmental policy direction, but felt ignored by the council. The mayor’s post was the last option for that course correction. If the mayor is reduced to a ribbon-cutter, citizens lose an important policy advocate.

Similarly, when public employees have exhausted traditional avenues to address grievances with management, the mayor’s office provides another option.

During my tenure, both fire and police personnel hit unyielding walls with management, and rumors of low morale in both departments were rampant. After discussions with the administrator, I invited employees to my office for a 360 evaluation. I kept names confidential in relation to testimony. It was a pleasure to meet those working the front lines for the city and provided rank and file an unprecedented opportunity to offer unvarnished opinions at the heart of their grievances. I eventually did the same with Public Works employees. This process led to quiet changes in department-head leadership and, as a bonus, employees also shared ideas of how to make the city more efficient.

Without a balance of power between the executive and the administrator, city employees wouldn’t have any other recourse. This equilibrium provides a mechanism to translate the will of the people into the direction of the city, hold our public institutions in check and accountability for corruption, which promises better outcomes for the community.

Advocates of the charter change have one argument: “Do this because it’s done elsewhere.” That reasoning would be akin to asking a well-resourced, successful hospital to discard proper hazmat equipment during the pandemic and use garbage bags because that’s what other hospitals are using.

Vote no: This charter change should be turned away and roundly defeated.

Cathy Shaw is a former three-term mayor of Ashland, author of “The Campaign Manager, Running and Winning Local Elections” and co-founder of Adopt a Neighbor.