Ashland council has work to do

It's old hat in some Southern Oregon cities for the actions of the city council to be regular cause for residents to sigh and shake their heads.

Not in Ashland, though. It was a place that for a long time had its act together, or at least as together as any city government could.

Then came the increasingly common suggestion that the six members of the council weren't getting along. That they needed $37,000 worth of taxpayer-funded counseling to move forward. That the city's paid managers were getting out if they could because the council couldn't make a decision — or when it could, it wanted to manage every piece itself.

You could hear the sighs and watch the heads shaking this fall all the way from the downtown plaza to the student hangouts along Ashland's southern edge.

Ashland is a town of involved and often educated people, people who care about their community and who will work for what they think is best for it. Some of those people serve on the council.

But if they are to right their tilting ship, patch together some respect from the community again and stop being mentioned in the same breath as the Gold Hill council, Ashland's elected leaders have to realize that their ability to cause change has a limit.

In a Mail Tribune story last week, city managers who've left the town sounded like they were reading from identical scripts when they described a council that has difficulty reaching consensus on issues and difficulty letting the managers manage once it has.

Particularly striking was this from Brian Almquist, Ashland's city administrator for nearly three decades before he left in the late '90s: that the council doesn't seem to understand its job is to set policy and then let the staff carry it out.

The council's counseling — under way now with an Ashland naturopath — is aimed at improving members' ability to get along with each other. Despite heavy criticism from the public, it may pay dividends by allowing the group to get more work done.

But it won't pull the micromanagers on the council off city staff's backs. There's only one good way to accomplish that, and it's called self control.

Council members have to recognize that if they want to continue to attract the good employees Ashland has found in recent years, they're going to have to back off and let people do their jobs.

Failure to do that will have an effect, and it reads like this: Ashland gains new notoriety — not as the idyllic Southern Oregon community it often has been considered, but as one more small town with a perpetually broken city government.

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