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Ashland human resource functions remain in-house for now

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland City Hall.

Ashland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to keep the city’s human resources department and functions in-house, at least until the next biennium.

Staff manage the city’s human resource and risk management functions with a two-employee department — soon to be one with the departure of an employee leaving the city for another opportunity, according to interim City Manager Gary Milliman.

Before beginning the process to recruit a new employee, Milliman said the time was right to get clarity from City Council on a path forward.

“The reason it’s on the agenda is that councilors do weigh in on this topic, and it is a source of anxiety in the city staff that this is bandied about as a possibility to eliminate the HR department and contract out the service,” Milliman said.

Councilor Gina DuQuenne’s motion to postpone council deliberation and hand the issue to the new permanent city manager for discussion in the context of the next budget cycle failed 2-4, with councilors Tonya Graham, Paula Hyatt, Stephen Jensen and Stefani Seffinger casting nay votes.

“This is not, in my opinion, a time for us to make decisions. It’s not our decision to be made,” DuQuenne said. “When we look at this, we look at it during the budget process, and we are not in our budget process right now.”

Councilor Shaun Moran said greater efficiency might be achieved if certain functions were outsourced, allowing HR staff to focus on a smaller range of tasks and potentially easing the workload for the department.

Milliman said he consulted with Jacobs Engineering regarding its local government contract services, Rogue Valley Council of Governments and Jackson County, and all advised that they did not have the capacity to provide HR services for an entity of Ashland’s size — further recommending the city keep its in-house system.

According to a survey of cities with more than 100 employees, the cities of Roseburg, Keizer, The Dalles, Pendleton, Albany, Hermiston and La Grande all retain in-house HR staff of between one and four people. Three cities handle risk management under HR and four do not.

Milliman said he did not know of any other resource that might provide the services to a city of Ashland’s size.

The city’s current HR functions cover recruitment, labor relations, management of employee benefit and workers compensation programs, assistance to department heads regarding discipline issues, onboarding, training, confidential records maintenance and payroll interfacing.

“This is a department that every other department in the city depends on,” Milliman said.

Since the city eliminated a risk manager position two years ago, the HR department assumed the job’s duties, and since Aug. 23 employees have left the city, ramping up recruitment responsibilities, he said.

“For the past 22 months, HR has played a key role in managing the city’s internal response to COVID-19, dealing with actual and potential exposures and labor relations issues relating to vaccine and testing mandates,” Milliman wrote in council documents. “HR will be playing an expanded role as the city gives increased attention to developing/administering internal policies and practices relating to social equity and racial justice.”

The new year is slated to bring negotiations for new labor agreements with four of the city’s five collective bargaining units, for which a “knowledgeable and skilled” HR staff is needed to navigate, he said.

“The HR department is actually underfunded,” Milliman wrote. “Staff rarely receives training or professional development. The HR director has attended CIS conferences, but nothing has been budgeted for training in emerging fields such as DEI, employment law or OSHA mandates.”

Graham said having an HR department internal to the city’s administrative system is “critically important,” because hiring and promoting staff is an area integral to achieving social equity goals.

Jensen’s motion to affirm that HR functions be retained with city employees until at least the next biennium passed unanimously.

“We can say ‘thank you’ again and again, over and over, and I think it’s now time to put our money where our mouth is and confirm to our very valued employees that they truly are valued,” Jensen said.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.