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Ashland City Council race: Robert Kaplan vs. Jill Franko

Jill Franko and Robert Kaplan are competing for Position 4 on Ashland City Council.

In the Ashland City Council race between Jill Franko and Robert Kaplan, voters have a choice between a candidate who described himself as a globally minded problem solver, and one who defined herself as a doer with strong local roots.

“All of us came from somewhere, I’ve been here for about three years,” Kaplan said. “Having lived and worked elsewhere, internationally, kind of broadens my outlook on local issues. I think differently about issues in my own community and the United States because of my experience.”

In his career working with the World Bank across Latin America, Kaplan worked with governments and agencies to provide technical expertise or financing to address all kinds of problems, he said. Ashland City Council often considers topics that are quite technical, said Kaplan, who speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese.

The two are running for Position 4 on the council, currently held by Stefani Seffinger, who did not seek reelection.

Jill Franko said her current position as director of the Ashland School Board and her previous experience as a member of the district’s bond oversight committee have heightened her knowledge of Ashland.

“I’m a local, I was raised in this region, I went to third grade at Lincoln School. I’ve been in the community for seven years, I’ve chosen to raise my family here — the historical knowledge I have of this region is in my bones. Those local relationships matter when it comes to small government,” she said.

As the school board worked to renovate Walker School, Franko said she was convinced to run for council by the “debacle” that project became.

“We were just having lots of delays, because of lack of approval between parks and planning. Those delays ended up costing ... several million dollars, and we had to move Walker School to a different location,” she said. “I was kind of concerned and dismayed by the lack of cooperation and communication between public entities. I realized I could do a better job on City Council than on the school board.”

Kaplan characterized his decision to run as part of a lifetime of public service.

“I’ve worked in public service all my life. I’ve always seen public policy as a way to improve peoples’ lives, to help communities improve conditions for all of us. It’s not an academic exercise for me, it’s all about people for me.”

Ashland’s new city manager form of government has promise, but it’s currently stuck in the growing pains of change. The city manager’s office could be further empowered by council, he said.

“For council to play its role, it has to look really broadly into the future and set direction. Not on its own, but drawing from everyone across the community. I felt my experience had maybe uniquely prepared me to play that unifying role to help our government work better,” he said.

The first issue at hand for Kaplan is what he referred to as stabilizing the city’s government.

“Four of our department heads are vacant, we have reports of about 50 staff vacancies, people are pointing to lack of services, including the billing office for utilities,” he said. “Unless we address this, we’re going to be hamstrung doing anything else.”

From there, his policy focus extends to providing top notch infrastructure, including fixing up the Community Center and Pioneer Hall, and addressing climate change while assisting low-income residents. This can be done on a “two birds one stone” approach through the city’s independent utilities, he said. The city could offer subsidies, a change in rate structure or weatherizing for households in need.

Kaplan advocates diversifying the city’s economy through enhancing opportunities for tourism and increasing cooperation between Ashland and the Bear Creek corridor — Talent, Phoenix and Medford.

“I believe if you work here you should be able to live here,” Franko said. “And I think we need to address the structural deficit that Ashland has. I think there are tremendous opportunities to find more efficient models of spending.”

Outcomes-based budgeting could help Ashland, Franko said. This kind of budgeting is based on determining goals and vision first, then planning where money is spent based on achieving that vision.

Franko also focused on diversifying Ashland’s economy, through enhancing existing tourist draws like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the city’s mountain bike trails, while also attracting new engines of income such as trade or culinary schools to pair with Ashland’s already renowned high school and Southern Oregon University.

Addressing climate impacts while assisting low-income residents ranked high for Franko, as well. Council could create initiatives focused on multidimensional problem-solving, she said, such as programs for weatherizing homes to cut down on utility bills, or offering free public transportation for commuters, subsidies and rebates for housing that needs insulation, and a permanent location for an extreme weather shelter.

Given the opportunity to speak to what she’s heard while canvassing the city, Franko said she was unsurprised to find mental health support on everyone’s mind.

There was a suicide in the school district recently, she said. The grief from losing a child that way ripples through a community.

“It’s such a microcosm of what’s so needed in so many different pockets of our community. I think there are beautiful ways to offer mental health support and to support that as a council, either through our policing or our senior center, and we have tremendous nonprofits in Ashland we could help support as a council.”

Franko envisioned a full-time grant writer working for the city of Ashland to support nonprofits and city departments. The inspiration for this, she said, came in part from a conversation with Public Works Director Scott Fleury, who explained how time-consuming obtaining grants can be when city departments are already understaffed and overtaxed.

“I’ve knocked on over 2,700 doors, personally, and that’s all kinds of neighborhoods, not concentrated in any one place,” Kaplan said. “And I have very broad interests. I’ve had some very good, very detailed conversations with voters.”

A recurring issue he said he found was the necessity of affordability, the city’s budget and future fiscal challenges.

Ashland’s parks have come up frequently, and he said the golf course has been a recurrent concern. Then there’s what residents have referred to as “the squabbling” on council.

“I would like to see the council be able to look at issues from all perspectives. My whole career has been about bringing people together and providing perspective on problems we’re trying to solve. I think decisions are better when it’s not group think. I definitely would enjoy and appreciate diverse perspectives,” Kaplan said.

Franko’s hopes from outcomes-based budgeting — communal focus on marshaling available resources to reach a common goal — is similar to what she hopes for Ashland City Council too. Council needs sharpened focus and vision, she said.

“I think one of my better qualities is to bring people together, and I have a sense of urgency. I have two young children, and they provide perspective that’s really needed,” she said.

Correction: this article originally stated Kaplan was in favor of bringing businesses to Ashland from the Bear Creek corridor, it has been corrected to state he is in favor of regional cooperation in the region.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.