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Social media comment sparks tense Ashland council meeting

A comment made by Ashland Mayor Julie Akins on the Nextdoor social media site became the focal point of a disagreement at the July 5 Ashland City Council meeting after Councilor Tonya Graham added a discussion of the comment to the agenda.

As City Manager Joe Lessard finished his report at the beginning of the meeting, Graham asked whether she could add an item to the agenda.

“I understand from social media that you’ll be proposing a forensic audit,” Graham said, addressing Akins.

Akins had posted the comment as part of a thread of comments discussing concerns around salaries paid to city employees and the city budget.

“I will be proposing, as you know, a forensic audit as soon as I have enough votes on council,” Akins wrote.

Graham argued the potential forensic audit needed to be discussed immediately because, she said, “As we all know, a forensic audit is asked for when there is suspicion of criminal behavior, so that to me is the most timely thing this body could take up.”

Akins said she would be asking for an audit “potentially, in the future,” but not because of any claims of criminal activity. She said the item was not urgent and could be put on the look ahead — the council’s schedule of future agenda items.

After some tense back and forth, a motion to put it on the agenda was proposed by Councilor Stephen Jensen and passed, without the votes of councilors Gina DuQuenne and Shaun Moran.

Discussion of the Nextdoor comment was the final item of business for the night.

Graham said her purpose in instigating the discussion was to ensure the city’s finances were above board. To publicly call for a forensic audit was a serious matter, she said, and whatever evidence led to that statement needed to be discussed with the council.

A back and forth ensued between Graham and Akins, with Graham insisting that Akins present the evidence that led her to call for the audit or apologize to the council for having made the statemen.

Akins insisted that if she was being accused of something, she had a right to a hearing and her own counsel, a right she would invoke if an accusation was made.

Graham continued to press for evidence or an apology. Akins responded she would speak about a forensic audit at the time and place of her choosing.

“I don’t actually report to you. Should I choose to bring this before council, I will do so. It would be most appropriate in an executive session,” Akins said.

Moran said that an audit is not inherently criminal, but rather a responsible thing to do, and he characterized Graham’s comments as taking cheap shots at the mayor. DuQuenne agreed the original statement did not seem accusatory to her.

Akins stated she was tired of being bullied; she was sorry she won the mayoral race, but Graham should get over it. Graham ran against Akins in the 2020 Ashland mayoral race.

Akins also said she was tired of being held accountable for what she said on social media in a way she claimed was disproportionate compared with other city employees.

A recording of the meeting can be seen at https://bit.ly/3bXUPiV

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.