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Hyatt calls for mayor, council to ‘clear the air’

As an Ashland City Council special session went into overtime Tuesday, Councilor Paula Hyatt called for the mayor and councilors to “clear the air,” under the risk of irreparably damaging the town they are each responsible for stewarding.

“What I see is a group, not a team. We’re failing to thrive, there is no trust, and it has to be dealt with if we as a group are going to become a team,” Hyatt said. “I feel very strongly that the seven of us needed to talk, and we can’t talk privately. We have to have these conversations publicly — it’s the only way it can be done.”

Hyatt said recent city events necessitate acknowledgment and further discussion to get the work of the city done.

Mayor Julie Akins said the special meeting felt more akin to a “bloodletting.”

The council met in special session to discuss the process for placing an interim city manager and finance director, with City Manager pro tem Adam Hanks and Finance Director Melanie Purcell resigning from the city effective Aug. 6.

Hanks said the process must respect a difference between the desired elements of a normal recruitment and a timely, temporary placement.

A staff-led search leaning on peer networks and outreach to firms with interim placement services has already begun, along with coordination between staff and the mayor’s office to develop a short list of candidates for the interim appointment, Hanks said.

“The candidates will likely be interviewing us and you all as much as we are interviewing them, and that’s a good thing, because we’re looking for a match that fits the current situation,” Hanks said. “What we need from an operational standpoint and what council needs from an administrative and policy standpoint need to be blended and matched up with what potentially interested candidates find to be well-suited.”

Hanks said once the list is narrowed down, staff will be looking for broad council support on the chosen candidate.

“A contentious appointment could prove to be really challenging,” Hanks said.

Staff will pursue alternate management services options such as hiring a firm for multiple services, rather than appointing individuals, though Hanks said the idea is unlikely to prove efficacious.

When Hanks assumed the interim city manager role, he retained nearly all duties from the deputy city manager role and some duties from other previous positions, he said. Certain responsibilities must be reassigned to other department heads to allow the interim city manager to concentrate on urgent tasks — some of those transitions are natural and timely, he said.

The interim city manager placement will be a minimum six-month assignment, with a goal of eight to 12 months and some overlap between the interim and permanent candidate. The interim finance director will serve five to eight months.

The target date to bring mayoral appointments for both positions to the City Council for confirmation is Aug. 3, Hanks said.

City Attorney David Lohman said filling interim positions under this process has worked well for the city in the past. After Martha Bennett left the city administrator position, staff identified a qualified candidate to fill the position temporarily and the placement played out successfully, Hanks said.

“You’re not going to get the perfect candidate, because you don’t have time to get the perfect candidate and make sure everybody’s on board,” Lohman said. “You just need to grab somebody who can do the job and then move on when you get the final decision made on the permanent one.”

Akins said a longer duration interim appointment may allow the council to take more time to find the ideal permanent candidate.

“I don’t want to rush this to the point where we’re panicking and trying to fill the position permanently because our interim is leaving,” Akins said.

Hyatt added discussion of the code of conduct to the agenda, in response to community members’ requests for information to substantiate claims made in local media outlets pertaining to Akins and councilors Shaun Moran and Gina DuQuenne and their alleged roles in recent administrative resignations.

Per the code, alleged violations are to be addressed “timely and publicly,” she said. Hyatt invited councilors Stephen Jensen and Tonya Graham to speak to their statements.

“I did not misspeak, I did not exaggerate,” Jensen said. “My statement was intentional and absolutely necessary in the light of the loss of a stellar fire chief candidate, the unprecedented withdrawal of two reputable recruiting firms and now the resignations of the top three administrative executives in our city. To remain silent as our city reels under this load would have been a dereliction of duty and would have made a mockery of my position as an Ashland city councilor and community elder.”

Jensen presented a prepared statement and read emails and social media posts into the record, which he described as “hard evidence” of his claims that staff endured personal attacks and dishonesty by elected officials that culminated in the resignation of three department heads.

A detailed description of each example can be found on Graham’s council blog at

www.tonyaforashland.com/tonyas-council-blog.

Graham said she believes behavior toward staff by Akins and Moran has placed the city in “grave danger of losing its ability to provide the critical public safety and essential services needed by our residents and businesses.”

Graham cited Moran’s past statements directed at Hanks, Finance Director Melanie Purcell and Public Works Director Scott Fleury, alleged mischaracterizations about the city budget and repeated suggestions to cut staff leadership salaries as examples of disrespecting staff and “attacking their livelihoods.” Graham said Akins’ typical response to a difference in perspective is to accuse councilors of lying.

“In hindsight, it would have been better if the structural issues of certain expenses rising faster than our tax base can keep up with them would have been addressed sooner,” Graham said, adding that she witnessed regular recognition among staff leadership of the need to address the city’s financial situation within the next 18 months.

“I believe the poor behavior of some of our elected officials is emboldening the overly hostile and aggressive behavior of some of our residents,” Graham said. “It is absolutely possible to say pointed things to council and staff while maintaining civility.”

Jensen recounted the process of two professional recruiting firms withdrawing their contracts for the city manager search. The second firm selected, managed by Wendi Brown, withdrew from the recruitment process “because of personal attacks upon herself and her staff by the mayor and two councilors,” he said.

According to an email from Wendi Brown to Graham, Akins sent a “scathing email” indicating Human Resource Director Tina Gray was at fault for Brown’s withdrawal from the city contract.

“In that email, the mayor also told her I said things to the mayor about Tina I never said,” Brown wrote. “The mayor was the person who was rude, disrespectful, never returning calls, missed and repeated to miss meetings.”

Brown wrote that Akins questioned her ethics and finally “demanded” she change the minimum qualifications for the city manager position after council-approved recruiting information had already been posted. Akins requested edits to the recruitment information that would require three to five years of city management experience, and Moran wanted a minimum of five years, she said.

Recognizing that full council approval was required for such a change, Brown said she requested a special meeting for clarification on minimum qualifications.

“The mayor ignored my request and insisted that we had full council approval and sent me a video to review that was supposed to provide that clarification, which I couldn’t open,” Wendi Brown wrote. “The mayor insisted I change the minimum qualifications, as did Councilor Moran. … That was the final factor among many that was making it impossible for me to be successful.”

Jensen said the examples demonstrate a clear pattern of “staff abuse, sidelining the will of the council, interfering directly in a critical recruitment process and eventually thwarting another critically important” council decision.

“My hope in presenting this indisputable track record is to catalyze our constituents to rise up and demand immediate changes in the elected leadership of the city of Ashland,” Jensen said.

Akins maintained she performed her job adequately and offered a fair representation of her positions in various email exchanges, and said Lohman’s decisions about retirement are his own. Akins characterized Jensen’s statements as “hogwash” and the account of Wendi Brown’s interaction with her as “complete fiction.”

Moran said Jensen’s statements “have zero basis in fact.”

Moran called for a public apology from Graham and Jensen for allegedly violating the council’s code of conduct and calling out councilors directly.

Hyatt moved to suspend meeting rules to extend beyond the scheduled special session time. Assistant City Attorney Katrina Brown ruled that the council can set time limits on meetings and that Hyatt’s motion required a vote. The motion to extend the meeting passed 4-2, with DuQuenne and Moran casting nay votes. Akins disagreed with the ruling that allowed the special meeting to continue past 6:30 p.m.

“I should’ve just gaveled out of it if it’s going to be nonsense like this,” Akins said to Jensen. “You’re wrong, 100% wrong, you violated the code of conduct and you should own your behavior like a grown-up.”

DuQuenne said she had some objectivity concerns about Tina Gray’s role in hiring her boss (the city manager), and affirmed she apologized publicly for any personal offense she caused.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger highlighted issues of trust among members of the council, which have shaped numerous council conversations since the body first convened, she said. Councilors who pressed for a master’s degree and high levels of prior experience as minimum requirements for the city manager position effectively cut all internal staff out of the running, she said.

Akins discounted Graham and Jensen’s statements as speculative and said she retains a right to speak publicly about her concerns.

Graham said she inquired into Southern Oregon University’s department of professional surveying to find out what is required to do a confidential survey of city staff and hear their concerns directly. The survey would cost an estimated $6,000, she said.

Akins ended the special meeting without a vote, calling the session to adjournment. Some councilors remained on the live screen and Hanks advised they could not continue to meet without a quorum. No further substantive discussion occurred.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.