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Learning from the past

The pledge has become an issue. While all the candidates for Ashland mayor and City Council agree that the city government’s dire financial situation is the most pressing concern in this year’s election, a dispute has arisen over a one-page pledge distributed by Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability (ACES).

The organization asked the 10 candidates to commit, if elected, to three steps: Reduce spending with no new taxes, surcharges or fees; use a prioritized budget approach (what many of us do in our households every day); and diversify the economic base of the city so we’re not so dependent on tourism and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Why did we do this? Because it’s been too easy in the past for candidates to promise good fiscal stewardship when campaigning, only to do the opposite upon getting into office.

The ACES Pledge for Economic Sustainability formalizes these promises, thus making it much tougher to break them once elected. Though the pledge isn’t a contract or even binding, it still holds our elected officials accountable for their words and actions.

Seven of the 10 candidates signed the pledge while three declined. Signing were:

Mayor — Julie Akins

Council Position 1 — Andy Card

Council Position 3 — Kelly Marcotulli, Shaun Moran and Gerald Padilla

Council Position 5 — Gina DuQuenne and Jessica Kensinger-Berry

Julian Bell, a candidate for Council Position 3, said he declined because of 1) concerns about campaign finance laws and 2) a desire for more time and experience on the ground to better understand the issues.

ACES, which operates in accordance with state law and regulations on political action committees (PACs), believes that anyone seeking to serve on the council should be knowledgeable and willing to speak out about the city’s financial situation.

Tonya Graham, who is running for mayor, declined because 1) it could send the wrong message to future finance director candidates if we begin to advocate for specific budget processes and 2) a belief in the Budget Committee process of equal voice of citizens and elected officials as laid out under Oregon statutes.

ACES believes it’s the responsibility of elected officials to set city direction, policy and goals. A finance director must operate within those parameters and doesn’t get to decide how to budget. Minutes of the 2019-21 Citizens’ Budget Committee deliberations disclose that Councilor Graham voted against most, if not all, of the cost-cutting motions offered by citizen members of the committee.

Paula Hyatt, candidate for Council Position 1, declined because ACES is a PAC and a belief that elected officials should remain independent of them.

ACES believes that signing the pledge in no way makes a candidate associated or beholden to ACES. It’s a commitment to city voters.

But, hopefully, the pledge will encourage our elected officials to put the city back on sound financial footing. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with the $306 million two-year budget approved a year ago that provided only $39,000 in reserves. Moreover, the budget was in trouble before the virus and has substantial built-in annual increases while the property tax rate is at the maximum level allowed under state law.

The pledge contains nothing radical, just sound public policy.

David Runkel, a former chair of the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee, is a member of ACES.