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Fire chief selection: Councilor says, 'time to move on'

ASHLAND — Discussions about who will be the next fire chief for the city of Ashland have brought forward questions about councilor propriety in digital spaces, and the role of various city officials in carrying out the will of the council as a whole.

During an Ashland City Council meeting Tuesday, City Attorney David Lohman attempted to clarify the sequence of events that led to candidate Devon Brown’s withdrawal from appointment as the next fire chief and ensuing disagreements between councilors.

At the Dec. 1 meeting, the council approved drafting a letter with an explanation and apology to Jackson County Fire District No. 3 and Ashland Fire and Rescue for the events that transpired surrounding a search for a limited duration fire chief between September and early December.

Lohman said lacking substantive direction from the council as far as language, he attempted to “moderate the tone” of the message by avoiding specific names and recounting objective facts.

Since Brown withdrew his name from appointment, some councilors and members of local fire union leadership have denounced Councilor and Mayor-elect Julie Akins’ social media messaging surrounding the issue as inflammatory and have criticized late-coming concerns, while Akins has maintained her statements align with a right to express disagreement when her qualms were left unheard, and to respond to an improperly handled council process.

Correcting an error he made in a council memo introducing the draft letter, Lohman said neither a motion nor discussion at the Sept. 15 council meeting included possible arrangements with District 3 — at the time, the council was considering partnership with District 5.

AFR began discussions with District 5 in May about a dual chief, who would direct both the district’s and the city’s fire services while other organizational structures were considered, according to Ashland interim City Administrator Adam Hanks.

During the Sept. 15 meeting, city staff presented three options for proceeding with fire chief selection. The first, traditional recruitment over several months, would have required an acting fire chief to fill multiple positions at once, Lohman said.

The second option proposed having the District 5 chief become AFR’s acting leader and promoting from within for onsite leadership. The third, which City Council approved unanimously according to meeting minutes, opted for a limited duration fire chief appointment, but did not specify partnership with District 3 or 5.

City staff and leadership subsequently decided merging with District 5 was not feasible and returned to the Nov. 2 study session with a proposal to work with District 3, Lohman recounted.

Hanks said last week further conversations would be had with District 5 Chief Charles Hanley to clarify intentions and explanations, after District 5 board Director Vicki Purslow said she felt “blindsided” by the city of Ashland’s choice not to proceed with the proposal for joint fire chief services.

In response to Lohman’s draft letter, Akins submitted her own statement to council meeting materials, in which she rejected the idea that an intergovernmental agreement with District 3 as written supports current and long-term budgetary resilience. She said the IGA was not discussed as part of overall budget concerns, and under her interpretation the city charter makes clear the city must have its own fire department.

During the Tuesday meeting, Lohman said he did not intend to embed personal criticisms into the draft letter or accompanying background information.

“Regarding a councilor’s expressions of personal views, a councilor has responsibilities beyond those of an ordinary citizen, because a councilor’s public comments can have negative practical or legal consequences,” Lohman said. “One of the roles of the city attorney is to caution city councilors against making statements that have the potential to put the city or even the councilor himself or herself in legal jeopardy. The purpose of the caution is to protect the interests of the city — nothing more.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen added a paragraph to the letter affirming the council’s determination to abide by the “spirit and the letter” of council rules and Ashland Municipal Code.

Among them, Jensen listed rules requiring councilors to respect the difference between policymaking and administration, to avoid criticizing a person in a public meeting or via electronic messages (without limiting a councilor’s right to report wrongdoing), and to freely express their views in any forum so long as statements about the position of the council body and other individual councilors are accurate and objective.

“There has been plenty said, there has been plenty written, the facts stand — it’s water under the bridge,” Jensen said. “The record is by and large complete, the missteps have been identified, and I believe it is time to move on.”

The letter passed 5-1. Akins, the single nay vote, said she preferred to move on without sending the letter to the fire entities or publishing it on the city website. She further questioned whether recent revelations about the city’s relationship with District 5 would warrant a second apology letter under the chosen format.

Prior to the Tuesday meeting, Akins said her primary concerns pertaining to fire chief selection include diversity, equity and inclusion principles, budget considerations, preference for independent fire leadership and thoroughness in hiring processes.

Akins said regional efforts may prove beneficial, but she maintains a belief in the value of hiring a fire chief accountable to and paid by the city of Ashland.

The IGA with District 3 permits the next chief to serve the city as an employee of the district — to provide “fire chief services,” including administration, personnel management, budgeting and reporting to the council and city manager.

According to Akins, the IGA with District 3 came on a consent agenda without the council formally agreeing to the contract in a previous meeting. She claimed her request to have the item pulled for later discussion was improperly handled by the mayor and left uninterrupted by the city attorney. Her motion to pull the item failed without a second, and the IGA opting for a one- to three-year appointment with Brown as the appointee passed on the consent agenda at the Nov. 17 meeting.

“The situation had become what I could argue was hostile, and as a result I went along with the wrongful demand, which I regret,” Akins said. “The fact that other councilors did not apparently hear my concerns makes my point for me. I raised concerns and continue to raise them.”

Akins alleged the current municipal administration has repeatedly sought to “rush through” hiring policies ahead of the next council and mayor’s seating, which she claims disrespects voters and lacks comprehensive consideration of each action.

In a statement shared in council meeting materials, Councilor Graham denounced the idea that closed-door decisions occurred while addressing fire chief vacancy and called out Akins for derailing a process intended to protect public safety.

According to email documentation, Stromberg, Hanks, Akins, councilors Stefani Seffinger, Rich Rosenthal, Dennis Slattery, Jensen and Graham received an invitation Nov. 10 from Human Resource Manager Tina Gray to arrange a virtual meeting with fire chief candidate Brown.

“He’s very excited about the opportunity, and we think he will be a great addition to the executive team and Ashland Fire & Rescue,” Gray said in the email invitation. “We want you to feel equally as confident about this collaborative hire.”

In an addendum to Graham’s statement, Jensen said he attended a Nov. 17 Zoom meeting with Gray and Akins to interview Brown, during which Akins asked about his current salary as division chief for Klamath County Fire District No. 1. Jensen claims the question was unlawful per Oregon’s Pay Equity Act, which Akins refutes.

The Act states, “employers cannot ask for a worker’s salary/pay history before they make an offer of employment,” according to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Jensen further alleged Akins violated three sections of Ashland Municipal Code by thwarting city staff members in the process of executing the will of the council, jeopardizing emergency preparedness contrary to the council’s stated intent, and accusing the council of “buddy deals” in the hiring decision.

Jensen attributed Brown’s subsequent withdrawal from fire chief appointment to “misleading social media traffic and the toxic atmosphere around this topic.”

The city left a vacant management position open to save money during the last budget cycle, before Chief David Shepherd retired this November, meaning two positions remain open with AFR — a situation with potentially detrimental effects given the concurrent crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the next fire season, Graham said.

Graham said selecting the applicant with support from District 3 and the city of Ashland was a “necessary exception” to a standard hiring process, which may have otherwise sought a larger candidate pool and employed the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

While public employee salaries are public and some leeway is allowed during the interview process, publicly misaligning salary with “all-in” employment costs is inappropriate and caused “unnecessary strife in the community,” Graham said. Cost to the city for a limited duration fire chief contract is the same as a traditional hire, and aligns with the level of expertise sought in a city of this size, she said.

In a Facebook comment reply Nov. 16, Akins said, “The current applicant makes $120,000. My guess: he’d have been interested for less than $225,000.”

In his addendum, Jensen labeled the comment misleading. Graham said because of the close working relationship within the fire and ambulance community regionally, Brown’s selection felt like hiring from within. She dubbed Akins’ salary questions and social media approach “highly unethical” and harmful to the candidate’s professional standing.

The apology and explanation letter will be sent to AFR and District 3, while the council prepares to tackle fire chief selection under the leadership of a new mayor and three new city councilors come January.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Tidings file photo