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Speaking truth to power: Akins’ leadership is destructive

It has pained me to see the effects of Mayor Julie Akins’ destructive leadership, yet I have kept my mouth and pen quiet abiding by my parents’ teachings: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

However, I cannot sit idly by any longer, not with the latest guest opinion by Akins titled “Keep democracy in our town,” printed in the Ashland Tidings on July 3.

Akins has created and contributed to a toxic work environment within Ashland City Hall. The indicators of a toxic work environment start with poor communication from the top, exclusion, bad leadership and high staff turnover and go on from there.

I have worked for all but two of Ashland’s city administrators since Brian Almquist retired in 1998. I have served many mayors and council members. This is truly one of the most dysfunctional periods in Ashland’s history. The change from city administrator to city manager has nothing to do with this toxicity.

Leadership starts at the top, but as the mayor pointed out, she has not “… been in the building in more than a year and (has) little to no contact with most staff members.” That translates to poor leadership and lack of communication.

The mayor’s comment, “... And no one who actually works at City Hall has said I’ve created toxicity …” is ludicrous. As a former employee, this is classic absurdity. No dedicated professional staff member concerned with their job would call out the mayor and risk being fired or severely chastised for making such a comment either privately or worse yet, publicly.

When the mayor was a City Council member, she never once made a scheduled session with me as the public works director, and schedules were rearranged several times to accommodate her needs. Councilor Akins rarely made assigned commission meetings that were meant to inform. She and others challenged me as a non-resident of Ashland (I live one mile outside city limits) saying that I did not care about raising rates because I did not have to pay them. My job, just as it is with the current, highly respected and professional public works director, was to provide the mayor and council with the facts and options to retain and maintain the city’s diverse, complex, yet aging infrastructure systems. Just because the mayor or a council member does not like or does not understand the solutions that are provided is not a reason to challenge personal integrity, mine or that of other devoted city staff.

My integrity, just as the integrity of every Ashland employee, especially those that come before the mayor and council to testify about the importance of public safety, public meeting rules, capital improvements, planning actions, utility services and other public services on behalf of the community, meant more to me than the back stabbing and personally disparaging remarks made by council members and members of the community. I left six months before my contract was to expire. I too, “retired” just as our very passionate, wise parliamentarian and city attorney has done, rather than deal with council and community members who do not care to learn the truth. Yes, we must step up and speak truth to power.

And yes, we will persevere and hopefully be better as a result, but it currently looks pretty grim for the dedicated staff at the city of Ashland. Three of their top managers are leaving within a span of 30 days; one other is being unfairly called out for doing her job in these uncertain times. Several other directors left over the past year, and even more line supervisors have left without fanfare. There have been no back-fills for several deputy positions and supervisors, so the remaining staff is being asked to do more, yet the mayor refers to this toxicity and subsequent exodus as “… questioning unbridled spending in a pandemic with a structural deficit and raising our fees and utility bills to pay for their caviar dreams.” Serving our community is not a caviar dream!

Yes, the mayor and council absolutely have the right to question spending, but it would be great if they would also listen to the needs, and abide by spending rules and revenue projections. Democracy allows us to disagree and freely give an opinion. I urge the mayor to please get some help so that she can have a truly informed opinion; one that could help Ashland move forward and be stronger. The mayor must not let her public opinion be shaped by those who have a misguided or misinformed agenda.

I have hope for my community. I have hope that Mayor Akins will lead and provide a better, more supportive, more collaborative mayor-council structure.

I truly thank the mayor and council members for stepping forward to serve our community.

Paula C. Brown was Ashland’s public works director from 1997 to 2008 and again from 2017 to 2020; she retired May 1, 2020. She is alsa a retired rear admiral, in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps.