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Strife delays Ashland city manager search

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsAshland City Hall.

The Ashland City Council decided Thursday to take a timeout in its city manager search after a second recruiting firm severed its relationship with the city.

“Having two firms walk should alarm us all,” said Councilor Stephen Jensen.

He said the council could do a better job collaborating with staff and with each other as well as with the public and outside groups.

Jensen said he fears the actions of the council may have exposed the city to legal and financial jeopardy, without specifying what those actions were.

The council voted 5-1 to put the city manager search on hiatus until after Aug. 1 to allow the council time to figure out how it wants to proceed.

The two recruiting firms are Pekham McKenney in California and WBCP Inc. of Gold Hill.

“At this time, WBCP, Inc. respectfully declines to move forward with assisting you with this recruitment process,” said Wendi Brown, president of the company, in a May 6 email. “My team and I are committed to meeting our clients’ needs and place great candidates to secure a long-term relationship with council, and I’m not sure under the current environment we are able to do either.”

Councilors indicated it will become increasingly more difficult to hire a recruiting firm if the the word gets out that Ashland is difficult to deal with.

“There are significant concerns about other firms willing to work with Ashland,” Councilor Paula Hyatt said. “We cannot afford to have a third firm step away from our city.”

But Councilor Gina DuQuenne said, “The first recruiter didn’t have a license to work in the state of Oregon.”

Other councilors indicated they hadn’t heard of that reason but instead said there were a half-dozen other factors that prompted the first recruiting firm to stop working with the city.

Many Oregon cities hire recruiting firms because of the highly competitive nature of city manager searches.

In 2020, former City Administrator Kelly Madding resigned her position to take a job as deputy city manager in Medford.

Ashland voters last year approved the creation of a city manager position to replace the position of city administrator. A city manager form of government is more common in Oregon, and the position carries greater executive authority, including the ability to hire department heads. Medford is an example of a local city with a city manager form of government.

Ashland’s interim city manager is Adam Hanks.

Several councilors expressed a lack of trust in what’s going on behind the scenes that has helped erode trust among the councilors in regards to the city manager search.

Some of the ire appeared to be directed at Mayor Julie Akins, who said, “I feel like I’m in the wood shed.”

Councilor Shaun Moran, who cast the sole “no” vote, said he understands taking a breath in the city manager search may help, but he said the will of the voters is to get a city manager as soon as possible.

“I don’t think a two-month break here will miraculously repair a reputation that has been tarnished,” he said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.