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Council agrees to continue providing winter shelter

The city of Ashland will continue to provide shelter to the homeless this winter, three nights a week regularly and more at times when the temperature drops below 20 degrees, with the conditions that the homeless not congregate sooner than one hour before the shelter opens and that they clean up after themselves before leaving in the morning.

The City Council on Tuesday added the stipulations in the ordinance that Pioneer Hall or the Ashland Community Center may not be available due to pre-booking for other events or too much snow weight on the roof of Pioneer Hall.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said he received complaints about the homeless hanging around under the shelter of awnings at Pioneer Hall on Winburn Way before the shelter opens.

“We need to keep a close eye and make sure this doesn’t crop up in future years, so down the line we don’t have to do something else because it becomes untenable,” said Slattery.

“We get e-mails from citizens about debris left over and concerns about the behavior,” Councilor Greg Lemhouse noted.

Lemhouse suggested the solution to sheltering homeless people ultimately should come from the community rather than the council.

“I really hope that we start looking at other community alternatives because I don't know how long the city can continue providing the winter shelter,” he said.

The council also discussed the Ashland Police Department’s request for a $1 million emergency operations center as a hub location to deal with a large-scale earthquake or other disaster. Currently, the police and fire departments use the council chambers to conduct drills in the event of an emergency. O’Meara pointed out the building has not been retrofitted to withstand a significant earthquake.

“This building after any kind of earthquake is not going to be here,” O'Meara said.

The proposal calls for the emergency operation center to be built adjoining the current police station building on East Main Street and would be 2,400 square feet, with a large open room, men’s and women’s bathrooms and a small kitchen.

O’Meara acknowledged the building "is not going to be used 100 percent of the time,” but noted it would be available for staff in an emergency, for training and as a central location should an earthquake or other emergency occur.

"I think it’s going to get decent use,” he said.

The EOC was first discussed and approved by the Ashland City Council in 2011 but has not been funded. O’Meara discussed the possibility of sending voters a general obligation bond in the spring and the council also discussed the merits of floating a combined bond for City Hall improvements and the emergency center in a combined measure.

Ultimately the council delayed taking any action but called instead for another study session to consider all options for the EOC and City Hall improvements. City Hall in downtown Ashland is also not expected to survive a major earthquake so the council has been considering its options in addressing that.

One of the key players in making recommendations regarding both issues is the interim city administrator, former Fire Chief John Karns, who has been filling the administrator role for the past year. Mayor John Stromberg suggested offering him a more permanent contract through July of 2019.

While councilors praised Karns, Lemhouse and Slattery suggested a more open hiring process, with the possibility of retaining an administrator who might be with the city longer.

“My concern is that he is at the tail end of his career as a public servant,” said Lemhouse.

Guided by City Attorney Dave Lohman, the council opted to re-offer a contract to Karns, with plans to move up the date of recruiting a permanent administrator to January 2018. Karns could apply, councilors agreed.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.