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Vote yes on Ashland's city charter amendment

Having served our community as city administrator for more than 27 years, I strongly urge Ashland voters to vote yes on Measure 15-189 on the May ballot.

This measure amends and updates the Ashland City Charter to create the position of city manager. The National Civic League, America’s oldest advocate for community democracy, has endorsed the council-manager form of government since its formation in 1915. Ashland is now the only city in Oregon with a population over 10,000 (except Portland and Beaverton), which has not adopted this modern form of local government. Nationally among cities over 2,500, the council-manager form is the most popular structure (73%) for local government.

There are good reasons for this. The council-manager form of local government combines the strong political leadership of elected officials in the form of a mayor and councilors, with the education and strong professional experience of an appointed city manager. Under this form, power is concentrated in the elected mayor and council, which hires a professional manager to implement its policies. These highly trained, experienced individuals serve at the pleasure of the elected governing body, and have responsibility for preparing the budget, directing day-to-day operations, hiring and firing personnel, and serving as the council’s chief policy adviser.

Our outdated charter designates the mayor as the chief executive officer of the city, empowers the mayor to appoint or dismiss a city administrator with consent of the council, but it does not define the duties of the administrator. City department heads are similarly appointed by the mayor, with the city administrator only allowed to make “recommendations.” In any public or business entity, a department manager cannot serve two supervisors. If a city manager or administrator is to be held responsible for the performance of those under their supervision, she or he must have the authority to select them based solely on their education, experience and character. In my opinion, this glaring conflict has discouraged many qualified professionals from applying for Ashland city positions. (This also is likely the reason that six city administrators have come and gone during the past 20 years).

The individual selected should be a person with broad experience as a city manager with the appropriate education and temperament to lead a complex public organization like the city of Ashland with an annual budget in excess of $125 million.

Remember, no one runs for mayor on a platform of superior administrative and personnel management skills. We hire these skills, we don’t elect them. The mayor is elected to be the strong political leader of our community who presides at meetings, facilitates communication and understanding between elected and appointed officials, assists the council in setting a vision and goals for our city, and advocates for policy decisions.

The mayor and council supervise and annually evaluate the city manager’s performance. If that person is not responsive and effective in their role, these elected officials have the authority to remove her or him at any time.

It is clear that Ashland city government faces an unprecedented period of financial uncertainty, complicated further by the current pandemic and its effect on city revenues. At this critical time, the positions of city administrator, finance director and public works director are occupied by persons serving in an “acting” capacity. This is no time for on-the-job training. Those individuals are welcome to apply and compete in an open selection process, provided they meet the qualifications approved by the mayor and council.

I urge you to vote yes on Measure 15-189 to begin the rebuilding process with a city manager who has the demonstrated experience and education the position requires.

Brian L. Almquist was Ashland’s city administrator from 1970 until his retirement in 1998.