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Ashland candidates spar on spending

Candidates running for Ashland City Council seats in the upcoming election had 90 minutes to impress a packed room of Ashland citizens Tuesday at a candidates forum.

Most shared common goals for the city focused around improving sustainability, the economy and affordable housing, but challengers argued the incumbents could’ve been doing more.

Carol Voisin, who is running against incumbent Stefani Seffinger for Position 4, said she organized focus groups this past spring to hear the priorities of citizens and would continue if she is elected. She said the city needs to “curb the skyrocketing utility bills,” address climate change and provide a stronger economic base for tourism year-round.

“It is possible for Ashland to become a 100 percent renewable city within 10 years,” Voisin said. “Why can’t we commit to this?”

Councilor Stephen Jensen, who’s being challenged by George Kramer for Position 6, said it would take much longer than 10 years.

Julie Akins listed a few of her ideas for affordable housing, including working with developers to lower the cost of building and placing a fee on structures that remain unoccupied throughout most of the year. She and Alfred Willstatter are challenging incumbent Jackie Bachman for Position 3.

Tonya Graham, running against incumbent Michael Morris for Position 2, said the city needs to focus on a select few issues because not much work is done when too many problems are tackled at once.

Seffinger countered the city does have priorities. She said after debt is paid for expenses incurred by the city, then the community’s priorities can be looked at.

Asked about city finances, Graham said the 2017-19 biennial budget was handled over the course of four meetings within three and a half weeks and was handed off between two financial directors in the middle of it.

“Because it was rushed, the council approved a budget with a $45 million error in it,” Graham said. “I believe that error could have been caught. There was still three and a half more weeks before the budget was due. It begs the question of what else was missed?”

Kramer noted that the city staff is growing even though the population is not. He said if union contracts can’t be renegotiated with city staff, then the city needs to stop hiring or reduce other positions to fill.

“I always joke that maybe we don’t need to have every toy known to mankind in a city of 21,000, we could rent stuff,” Kramer said. “We don’t need to spend money on studies for City Hall, we can fix what we’ve got, we can maintain what we’ve got and we can live within our means.”

Akins said there’s been a lot of irresponsible spending by the city, including the proposal of building a $10 million new City Hall, when the retrofit would cost $2.5 million.

“I think the $100,000 art piece that many people didn’t really like that came from an outside artist, that’s a problem,” Akins said. “I bet you I could throw a rock and hit three artists right now. Our town is full of really talented artists.”

The candidates were asked what the city could do to meaningfully reduce its greenhouse gas footprint. Many said it will take a change of mindset by the entire community, with individuals taking part in the effort.

Jensen noted that controlled burning is beneficial to the community, but the amount of carbon dioxide released in the air creates a dilemma.

“I would agree with George about the large megaprojects on the solar arrays,” Jensen said. “While it’s a feel-good project and sounds tenable, financially, it’s a real stretch I think we have to be realistic in this town about our response to carbon emissions.”

Not present for the forum were Theodore White, candidate for Position 2, and Randy Dolinger, candidate for Position 6. Visit https://bit.ly/2QGedRq to watch a recording of the event.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Ashland City Council candidates share their views during a Tuesday night forum at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Photo by Denise Baratta