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Parks commissioner files complaint with state

An Ashland parks commissioner has filed a formal complaint contesting claims used in collecting signatures for a recall petition against him and two other commissioners, documents sent to the Ashland Daily Tidings reveal.

Parks Commissioner Jim Lewis submitted a packet to the State Elections Division Wednesday, including letters from parks staff refuting at least two claims made in the recall petition that three commissioners mismanaged the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department budget and violated public meetings law.

Lewis, along with Commissioners Mike Gardiner and Rick Landt, faces a recall election in March after the parks commission voted in August 2017 to effectively reorganize the Ashland Senior Center and dismiss the center's manager of 10 years, Chris Dodson. Dodson notified the city in January she may be filing a suit alleging she was wrongfully terminated. A former part-time center staff member filed a separate age-discrimination claim in December with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Lewis said Thursday that signatures were collected using “baseless statements” in an effort to recall the commissioners.

“I support the idea of a recall election, but this is based on false information and personal opinions,” Lewis said. “It’s quite upsetting for me.”

According to the state recall manual, knowingly providing a false statement in the petition is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $125,000 and a prison term of up to five years.

Petitioner Avram Chetron, who the campaign has designated as the group’s spokesman, declined to comment on the complaint. He said in previous interviews that the group stood behind its claims and the details posted on the website AshlandRecall.com.

The recall campaign launched in November and is supported by a group called Ashland Support Our Seniors. The Jackson County Clerk’s Office confirmed last week that petitioners collected 5,417 signatures from Ashland registered voters in January, meeting the state requirement to launch a recall election.

The three commissioners, who said last week they will fight the recall, have filed their letters of justifications, Ashland City Recorder Melissa Huhtala said. The letters are available on the city website.

Ballots will be mailed out to residents between Feb. 21 and Feb. 23, Huhtala said, with the election scheduled for March 13.

The petition claims the commissioners mismanaged parks’ $9 million annual budget, resulting in low revenues and rising yearly expenditures. According to the adopted budget, also available on the city's website, the parks department will have a deficit of around $5.9 million by 2023.

City Attorney David Lohman, in response to a question asked by Ashland City Councilor Rich Rosenthal at the council meeting on Tuesday, said the city and finance department monitor parks' budget. The city also gives the council quarterly financial reports from all departments, including the parks department.

In his letter included in Lewis’ complaint, City Administrator John Karns further states that the city’s and parks’ budgets are audited annually by Portland-based Pauly Rogers and Co.

The petition also claims the commissioners mismanaged personnel by dismissing the Ashland Senior Center manager without a just cause or an identified problem.

Parks Director Michael Black said in February, months after the dismissal, that the commission’s decision stemmed from Dodson’s unwillingness to change when the center was, he said, performing under the level of satisfaction. He also claimed the program was operating without much oversight and exposed the city to potential liabilities.

Dodson denied Black’s statement through her attorney.

The petition also claims the commission repeatedly broke Oregon Public Meetings Law by not properly noticing public meetings, not providing materials related to agenda items at meetings, not approving or making minutes of the meetings that crafted the initial recommendations public months later and not accurately reflecting public input in the minutes.

In her letter included in Lewis’ complaint, Huhtala confirmed the postings of the meetings from Jan. 24, 2017 — the first Ashland Senior Center subcommittee meeting.

“The agendas/minutes and audio are all on the city website, and from what I can tell they were posted in plenty of time according to Public Meeting Laws,” according to her letter.

According to minutes available on the city website, members of the parks commission either acknowledged or approved the minutes from six subcommittee meetings at subsequent regular meetings.

The Daily Tidings found minutes from a Jan. 24 subcommittee meeting in the parks commission's Feb. 27 meeting’s packet. Minutes of subcommittee meetings on March 28 and April 17 are in the packet for the May 22 meeting, and minutes for the May 3, 17 and Aug. 8 subcommittee meetings are in Sept. 25 meeting packet.

The Daily Tidings also found notification postings for all six meetings on the city's website, but the Tidings has no record it was sent an agenda in advance of the meetings.

At the Ashland City Council meeting on Tuesday, Lohman responded to a question from the council that public officials do not need to include a record of public participation in public meeting minutes and that written minutes don’t have to be a verbatim transcript.

The petition also claims that the commission approved spending $230,000 on a consultant for Lithia Park with disregard for public concern.

The parks commission drafted a Request for Proposals and selected Portland-based firm to conduct a Lithia Park Master Plan in 2017 with a fund designated for the project, according to meeting minutes. The proposal was then presented to and approved by the council in August, with Councilor Traci Darrow voting no.

In an interview in December 2017, Darrow said she felt “it was unwise” to hire a third-party firm instead of conducting the study in-house.

The council received no public input request at the meeting, according to the meeting minutes.

The petition claims the commission ignored two specific recommendations from a 2016 performance audit regarding making changes within the department in reference to the parks commission’s plan to renovate the Daniel Meyer Pool.

In an email sent Thursday evening, Gardiner wrote that the audit, funded by the city, was “well worth the investment” and the parks commission focused on the recommendations “that would provide us with successful outcomes for our documented goals.”

Black said in an interview in December 2017 that the commission was finding ways to fund its pool project, “but there’s no clear path for it.”

The parks commission and the Ashland School District were scheduled to meet in January to talk about a potential joint bond issue, but the meeting was canceled. In the parks commission meeting on Jan. 22, Black and Gardiner said the pool project “is on hold for now.”

In the same email, Gardiner added, “The pool is currently a sad casualty of the recall process.”

Four people spoke at the City Council meeting Tuesday night in support of the parks commissioners, calling the recall “unnecessary” and “waste of time and energy.”

— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.