Council Corner: Use the city's website; abusive behavior shouldn't be tolerated
As a former journalist, it is fascinating to see the evolution of news media and how people obtain information about local affairs in the Internet age.
The advent of mobile devices and instantaneous communication makes it difficult for the "old" media outlets — newspapers, TV, radio — to stay viable amid the rise of social media and web-based sources of information.
The impact of global trends on a small media market is particularly dramatic. Staffing at local newspapers and TV stations in the Rogue Valley is a fraction of 1995 levels. Professional news reporting is an endangered species, and the breadth and depth of local coverage has diminished. Ashland is certainly fortunate to still have a five-day-a-week newspaper, and it needs to be supported.
A consequence of newsroom downsizing, though, is the challenge for local government to inform citizens of key issues, forums and public processes. For its part, the City of Ashland maintains a comprehensive website with an email notification system, publishes a monthly utility bill newsletter and will soon redouble efforts to engage residents on social media.
I've noticed Ashlanders are increasingly influenced by other sources such as total market coverage advertisement tabloids (delivered free to our mailboxes) and Facebook group sites. Even though information is sometimes conveyed in a journalistic style, the owners and organizers have no obligation to be objective.
To be more completely informed about local government topics, I encourage citizens to go straight to the source and make it a habit to check the "hot topics" list on the City of Ashland's website (www.ashland.or.us). Bookmark the "Council Business" page for minutes and agendas. The "Look Ahead" document on the study session agenda contains topics of upcoming meetings, and the "Council Communication" on particular topics are ideal for obtaining comprehensive facts and background pertaining to issues considered by the City Council and city commissions.
Over the past three years, I've communicated with many people who were spurred to comment via special-interest Facebook group pages. Folks who take the time to discover key facts and background about the particular topic often change their point of view or soften their criticism.
I encourage citizens to reach out to your elected volunteers on issues that matter to you — the essence of a democratic system of government. However, before clicking on a "send an email to the City Council" link on a Facebook page, take an extra moment to check the city's website, because advocacy is far more effective when we are all working from the same information.
In my opinion, testimony at public meetings is far more persuasive than a blast email to the entire City Council. Dozens of citizens who attended and commented at the Oct. 28 public forum regarding downtown behavior issues were passionate and compelling.
The common themes were:
- Downtown behavior problems represent a lack of common decency.
- Citizens and tourists are frightened and outraged by aggressive panhandlers and abusive lawbreakers.
- Ashlanders want to feel safe downtown, and everywhere within the city limits.
In November, the City Council responded by passing ordinances requiring dog licensing and declaring certain dog behaviors to be public nuisances, adding smoking marijuana in a public place as a violation subject to expulsion from the downtown core for repeat offenders and expanding the downtown enhanced law enforcement zone.
The City Council also directed staff to report back on enforcement strategies and options, including the possibility of renting jail space in Medford as a deterrent to repeat offenders. Comprehensive outreach programs and community partnerships are also essential because we want to educate those willing to be educated and help those who want to be helped.
The status quo is not satisfactory to the vast majority of citizens I've heard from. Achieving a safe and friendly downtown atmosphere, establishing a firm-but-fair enforcement approach and conveying behavioral expectations requires a patient, mixed-methods approach as well as buy-in from and encouragement of our police department.
After all, when people no longer want to visit our downtown core, it's not just a problem for businesses. It is an existential crisis for the entire community.
Rich Rosenthal is a member of the Ashland City Council.