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Ashland comes under fire for hiring practices

As the Ashland City Council looks for a new police chief, a former council member says he and a group of citizens will be watching them to see if they are reaching out to include women and minorities in their search.

City officials say they will begin the vetting process with a hope of naming Ashland’s new police chief by June. Police Chief Terry Holderness,  who began his tenure as chief in Ashland in March 2007, has announced he will retire from the position on April 17.

“I think I am leaving on a high note,” said Holderness, who expressed to the council during a study session Monday his willingness to help city officials find and name his successor.

Ashland advocate and former City Councilor Eric Navickas said he and an unspecified number of other Ashland residents will have a close eye on the city’s search for a new police chief.

Navickas has been bombarding city administrators with emails recently, demanding the city’s affirmative action policy and its goals be taken into consideration during the upcoming vetting process.

“All of the city department heads, the entire managerial staff, every single on of them is a white male,” Navickas said. “I view Ashland as a progressive community, and it is really sad that the city government doesn’t reflect the values of the community.”

In an email, Navickas pointed to a phrase outlining a goal of the city policy: "employ qualified women and minorities in all job categories in proportion to their availability in the labor market."

“It is a very important policy that the city has passed and is failing to uphold,” said Navickas, calling the city’s recent hiring practices “racist and sexist.”

Pointing to Ashland’s former Public Works Department Director Paula Brown and former city Administrator Martha Bennett, who left in 2007 and 2011, respectively, Navickas noted it's been nearly four years since a woman was hired to fill a managerial role by the city.

Holderness said the council should make its decision with an eye on how well the new chief will mesh with the community.

“I think the culture of the department fits this community really well. ... I think what you’re looking for is someone that is going to continue that culture, someone that understands the culture of Ashland,” Holderness said. “I would really like the opportunity to make a recommendation.”

Although he declined to reveal who, Holderness told councilors that he has an internal candidate in mind for the job, but that he would strive to maintain an openness and willingness to consider any candidate for the position.

In deciding to take on the role of recruiting qualified candidates using in-house staff rather than hiring a recruiting firm, city Administrator Dave Kanner said the city’s biggest challenge will be finding someone with the “ability and willingness to maintain the culture that Terry has built.”

“I think what (Holderness) has done and what he encompasses is what we want to continue, but we want a chief that has fresh ideas and the ability to — like Chief Holderness said — take us a step further,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse.

After serving 25 years in a variety of entry-level and leadership roles with the Fontana, Calif., Police Department, Holderness came to Ashland determined to align its department's approach to police work with the values of the Ashland community. During his tenure, the department gained national recognition for it new approach to taking on reports of sexual assaults and reduced the turnover rate of its officers from nearly 50 percent during 2006 and 2007 to an insignificant proportion currently.

Holderness became chief in Ashland just as an independent probe on the department suggested its officers and APD as a whole become more adept at community policing practices. That fit Holderness' strengths, as he has spoken around the country about community policing and has written academic articles on how police departments should handle issues surrounding homelessness, use of force and community outreach.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg said the city will look to Holderness’ expertise to guide it through the hiring process.

Reach freelance reporter Sam Wheeler at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness talks with the City Council on Monday about criteria for choosing his replacement after he retires in April. Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.