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What's wrong with electing a city recorder?

Ashland's city charter — our local constitution — mandates governmental transparency and citizen involvement to a higher degree than most communities. As a result, Ashland has a handful of municipal practices that are unique to the region and the state.

For example, Ashland is the only city in Oregon to have an elected parks and recreation commission, and one of just three municipalities in the state to elect a city recorder who oversees financial documents and civic conformance with public records laws. Elsewhere, the city recorder is typically hired by the city manager, and parks commissioners are appointed by the mayor and/or city council.

Tonight, the Ashland City Council will consider recommendations from an ad hoc committee that examined how the city recorder position works in other places. Citing the prospect that electing a new city recorder poses a grave risk to our municipal government operation and claiming it will be difficult to find qualified residents for the job, the committee's recommendation suggests asking voters, as soon as May, to change the charter and make the city recorder an appointed position.

It will require far more compelling arguments than what I've seen and heard over the past three years as a city councilor to convince me that this sweeping reform is the best course of action. Evidence suggests less dramatic adjustments are necessary.

The current city recorder, Barbara Christensen, who intends to retire in 2018 upon completion of her sixth four-year term, is a leader in her field as a result of ongoing professional development and longtime involvement with the Oregon Association of Municipal Recorders. In 1994, Christensen succeeded another highly respected city recorder, Nan Franklin, who served for 18 years.

In fact, there have been only seven elected city recorders in Ashland over the past century (an average tenure of over 16 years) which demonstrates the risk of incompetence is minimal and the likelihood to attract competent candidates is probable. Several unsuccessful candidates in the 1994 election — the most recent open seat for the city recorder position — have gone on to highly respected careers in the community.

The advantage of having a full-time, elected official in City Hall can't be understated. An independent, objective, nonpartisan who is insulated from internal politics and personal agendas (and egos) is every bit the appropriate check-and-balance today as it was 100 years ago. The current system counters the national trend of less transparent, more consolidated government. Just ask folks in Bell, Calif., or Ferguson, Mo.

Indeed, some of the responsibilities assigned to the city recorder have evolved over the past century, and the Ashland Municipal Code should be revised to reflect duties and expectations that properly belong in other departments. And a conversation about minimum qualifications, compensation and performance expectations is certainly appropriate.

There are interpersonal dynamics that need to be addressed that currently undermine the effectiveness of the position. For example, I've never understood why the city recorder is not invited to weekly department-head meetings on a regular basis. How can the city recorder perform at the highest possible level when she or he is excluded from participating on the municipal government leadership team?

What really is the core issue? What motivations are influencing this topic? Are we trying to solve a problem that is not a problem?

Adopting a new model for hiring a city recorder at the expense of having a less transparent government won't get my vote, and I hope it doesn't get yours, either.

Rich Rosenthal is a member of the Ashland City Council.