Help wanted in Ashland City Hall
And then there were three. First City Attorney Dave Lohman retired. Then City Manager Pro Tem Adam Hanks resigned. And now Finance Director Melanie Purcell has resigned as well.
What’s going on in City Hall? Your guess is as good as mine. While some people may view this as a crisis, I see it as a welcome house cleaning. The voters made their intentions clear last November: They want change. No more concentration of executive power in the mayor. Thus, the change from an administrator, hired by and reporting to the mayor, to a manager, hired by and reporting to the City Council.
There was a significant turnover in the council. Mayor Julie Akins and Councilors Gina Duquenne and Shaun Moran, all running on platforms of fiscal restraint and responsibility, were voted into office. Paula Hyatt, also presenting herself as a candidate of fiscal responsibility, was also elected. So far, Duquenne and Moran have voted consistently for reining in spending; Hyatt has not. In fact, Hyatt has voted in favor of every spending question that has come before the council since she was elected.
This is an opportunity to restaff City Hall with professionals who have a fresh vision for our new form of government and the city’s finances. Lohman was, in Mayor Stromberg’s words, his “personal consigliere.” Hanks was a 30-year veteran of City Hall, and the personal choice of the outgoing mayor to become the new city manager. You may recall the contract the mayor wanted to offer Hanks, which included a huge severance clause. That contract raised more than a few eyebrows, and was subsequently abandoned. And Purcell presided over a budget process that was most notable for its lack of transparency and availability of detailed data. Even some data requested by the Citizens Budget Committee was not provided. Although the finance department managed to balance the budget this year thanks to an infusion of federal relief funds, it left the city in an extremely precarious position for the years ahead.
So the city needs three new top officials. If the “legacy majority” on the council (Stephen Jensen, Tonya Graham, Stefani Seffinger, joined by Hyatt), who had forced a halt to the search for a new manager until August, will now roll up their sleeves and agree to an effective search process, I’m confident that we will be able to find excellent candidates to fill these essential positions.
But there’s one more hire we need to make, to be brought in for one job only.
We need to hire an accounting firm to do a complete audit of the city’s finances, line by line, top to bottom. It should not be Moss Adams, the firm that does our annual state-mandated audit, but another firm, one without a preexisting relationship with the city. Several years ago, errors were discovered in the budget. Just this past April, I noticed that the “position report” (list of compensation for city jobs) had been pulled from the OpenGov section of the city website. When I asked the finance director why that had occurred, she replied “We pulled the report because we found errors and data we had trouble corroborating. We will update it and replace it in the next week or so.” That report has never been restored.
Given the precarious condition of our city’s finances, I believe it would be well worth a careful examination of the books, down to each line item. With a structural deficit looming in our future, we can’t afford to find any surprises.
Dean Silver lives in Ashland.