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An alternate perspective on the City Council crisis

It’s been hard to miss how Ashland City Council meetings have frequently been tense and sometimes contentious since the new council members and mayor came onboard in early 2021. Comments during those sessions and council member statements in social media and local press suggest there are trust issues and even ethics concerns in some policy disagreements.

It appears Ashland is now somewhat echoing the national political scene in that we have two starkly opposed narratives, both supposedly based in fact. Both sides seem to firmly believe they are in the right, and with critical issues at stake, it’s not hard to see how that could lead to bitterness and rancor. But unless our council’s politics have devolved as far as “alternative facts,” how can both sides be right?

One narrative seems to boil down to a belief that for many years Ashland has been subject to an oversized, overpaid staff with out-of-control program budgets. Comparing us with other similar sized towns in Oregon does appear to validate this claim. This has been cited on several occasions during recent council meetings. It is easy to see how this viewpoint would logically lead to questioning the accuracy of staff recommendations, or trusting the viewpoint of council members who were party to past decisions supporting current city staff size and salaries.

The opposing narrative — while in full agreement that Ashland will need to make some significant reductions before the next biennial budget is crafted — has a strikingly different view of how we got here. In this version, City staff size, salaries and program budgets have mostly been appropriately matched to the expressed preferences and needs of our citizens. Within this viewpoint, the primary challenge before us, given the increasingly tighter financial realities facing us in near future, will be to carefully weigh and determine what programs and staff will need to be cut during the next budget cycle that most closely match the priorities of our citizens, and perhaps to put some ballot measures forward to get citizen input on alternative solutions.

Both sides agree we need significant changes in programs and staff size within the next year or two. But it appears one believes this was significantly due to mismanagement. If true, mistrust of the status quo and those who represent it is an appropriate, perhaps even necessary stance. It’s not hard to see how this would lead to a council that is having issues, with both sides convinced they are in the right and the other side is full of hooey.

I believe there’s something “under the hood” in these opposing narratives that needs to be made explicit. That is, what kind of town do we want Ashland to be in the coming decades?

Considering its size, Ashland has a remarkable reputation nationwide. We’re often on “10 best small towns” lists. We’re frequently mentioned in a wide range of national media, describing the exceptional quality of life available here. Many of us either settled here deliberately due to what Ashland offers, or know someone who has done so. Our town offers our citizens a huge range of programs, and for our size we have one of the most outstanding park systems in the country. One of our biggest problems — housing affordability — is clearly driven by the quality of life our town offers.

It is surprisingly difficult to accurately compare budgets between towns with similar population sizes, due to the huge variation in the range of services towns offer, as well as the relative quality of those services. Even so, another metric that might clarify the underpinnings of these two narratives would be to see how Ashland stacks up to other small towns that have a national reputation as fabulous places to live. In each case I examined, town budget and staff size relative to population were roughly similar to ours, and significantly larger than the norm.

If our ultimate goal is bring our budget and staff size in alignment with other Oregon cities of similar size, this would require big changes — including reducing or eliminating many popular programs. Perhaps that’s what the majority of our citizens want at this point. Perhaps not. But it sure does seem important to be talking about this as a community. Hopefully Council will solicit a wide range of citizen input before final decisions are made!

Stephen Gagné lives in Ashland. While he serves as chairman of the Ashland Wildfire Safety Commission, the views expressed here are his own.