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Back to square one

Now that the primary election in Jackson County is over, Ashland can consider its implication for the town, which includes the future of three historic buildings as well as the balance of power shift once the city hires its first-ever city manager.

The people spoke and spoke loudly, voting down a bond measure that sought to fund $8.2 million worth of capital improvements, City Hall among them, and passing a measure to create a new city manager position that will consolidate administrative authority in the new position and transfer executive office duties from the mayor to the city manager.

Votes may still be trickling in, but the final tallies will likely end up being as lopsided as early returns were Tuesday night. Measure 15-193 went down hard, with 69% of voters (6,639) rejecting the proposed bond. Measure 15-189 was nearly as one-sided, with 64% of voters (6,030) electing to hire a city manager.

Had the capital improvements bond passed, it would have funded the restoration of City Hall for $7.2 million, and repairs to both the Community Center ($500,000) and Pioneer Hall ($500,000). Instead, voters pushed the issue back to city leaders, who must now find other funding sources and may have to prioritize the laundry list of repairs to all three buildings.

“Being one that wasn’t fond of the idea of putting it on the May ballot, it didn’t surprise me,” Ashland City Councilor Dennis Slattery said of Measure 15-193’s downfall.

“Kind of an easy call, in my opinion. I just felt like we should have pulled it, and I attempted that. But the thing is, I’m not thrilled or happy that it didn’t pass. In some ways I would have preferred for it to pass if that’s what the voters wanted to happen ... it’s just that this wasn’t the right time.”

Indeed, the timing could hardly have been worse. The council decided Feb. 18 to send the bond measure to voters. At the time, slicing $2.4 million and two proposed projects — a $2.1 million solar power system and a $350,000 renovation of the Butler-Perozzi Fountain — seemed like a fiscally responsible twist that would give the bond a better chance of passing.

Then COVID-19 swept in, bringing with it jarring changes to daily life, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order to close bars and restaurants March 17. That, along with social gathering restrictions and social distancing recommendations, led to a canceled 2020 season for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a consequence that would have seemed unthinkable only a few weeks prior.

With Ashland’s tourism industry decimated, even the bond’s supporters, such as Stephen Jensen and Rich Rosenthal, knew it was a longshot at best.

“I was a little surprised about the city facilities bond measure — I thought it would be closer,” Rosenthal said. “I think a lot of people who looked into the matter and put the time to dig into it were supportive of it. It’s just that the timing and the circumstances were obviously the worst possible for a consideration like this. Had we known this (pandemic) was coming, we probably wouldn’t have selected the May ballot for it.”

Jensen added that while he didn’t appreciate the vitriol the bond measure seemed to inspire on social media, he was pleased that the issue went before the voters. Opponents of the bond, he said, worked hard to fight it and got the votes they needed.

“They had a lot of signs out and a good letter campaign,” he said. “It was just the wrong time. I don’t know if I agree that it was the wrong price, but it was the wrong time.”

The defeat of Measure 15-193 begs the question: now what? All three buildings need substantial repairs. The Community Center’s north-facing wall bulged out in early 2019, and it needs a new roof. Pioneer Hall needs a seismic rehabilitation, and heating and air upgrades, but the most expensive repairs are at City Hall. Originally built in 1891, the unreinforced brick building does not meet current building codes, access requirements and energy efficiency guidelines, and is unlikely to withstand a significant earthquake long enough for staff and customers to exit the building.

During a City Council study session Sept. 30, 2019, Ashland City Attorney Dave Lohman said that since City Hall is outdated and not seismically fit, anyone injured in the building or from falling debris could sue the city.

Since the problem wasn’t solved by the election, Ashland will have to get back to the drawing board

“City Hall has been an issue for decades,” Rosenthal said. “At least we tried, which is more than what had been done in previous cycles. What now? I’m not really sure what path the council will go down. Try again in a future proposal? Two, modify the plan. Three, wait. And four, move employees out of City Hall. Any number of those things could happen. ... It won’t be easy, and the reality is the buildings are a burden, and we have to find a way to resolve that.”

Reactions to the Measure 15-189 result were more favorable in general. Slattery, who was instrumental in getting the charter change on the ballot, said the net effect will be a more efficiently run city.

The city manager position won’t be added until January 2021. Between now and then, the city will be looking for candidates for a position that, according to Rosenthal, pays more than Ashland’s current city administrator post — a job that will be eliminated.

Ashland’s previous city administrator, Kelly Madding, stepped down in April after holding the job for a little less than two years. Adam Hanks, who was the assistant city administrator, has stepped in as interim city administrator.

“I think you want your CEO of the city to be a professional who’s at their job every day,” Slattery said, “and I think you want your political leadership to be in tune with them and working with them and responsible for them. But I think it’s very difficult for any organization to basically have two heads and for a city administrator-type person to run a city without having all the authority to do so. So I think this straightens that out.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsThe City of Ashland will have to go back to the drawing board for a way to fund a repair of the Community Center.