Free meals being served outside in the dark instead of in Pioneer Hall
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
The Ashland City Council failed to make it through a long list of agenda items Tuesday due to unusually high public engagement.
Fifteen Ashland residents signed up to speak at the Nov. 7 City Council meeting. Holding the thick stack of speaker requests in her hands, Mayor Tonya Graham asked audience members to hold up their hands and make a gesture between waving and jazz hands if they wished to express support for those who spoke.
The majority of speakers addressed City Council on the issue of homelessness — from the closure of Pioneer Hall for community meals to proposed changes in the city’s camping ordinance.
“We’ve been sitting on rocks and grass for the last several months and now it’s too cold, it’s too dark, and our people can’t eat that way,” said Elizabeth Hallet, executive director of Peace House.
Peace House was previously able to hold community meals for those experiencing food insecurity at Pioneer Hall. Hands waved throughout the audience as Hallet and other speakers decried the city’s recent closure of the hall for this use.
“Pioneer Hall, it needs to be available to us, having darkness — like today — and no place to sit, it’s inhumane. … Show some compassion, open that hall, it’s totally usable. Stop the excuses,” said Helga Motley, another volunteer for community meals.
Debbie Nieswander, an advocate for the homeless community of Ashland, referred to the city’s proposed changes to its camping ordinance as “traumatizing.”
“I had to cry myself to sleep because I came to the realization that Ashland is becoming a gated community. … (I)t’s not criminal to be homeless,” she said.
Hands throughout the audience waved as she spoke. Nieswander reminded the council of requests for changes in rules for those sleeping on the designated camping area — known as the “night lawn” — behind the council chamber.
“I have tried to create a vision of what these folks are going through. I have never gotten a response. Well, guess what? At some point, they start taking things into their own hands. We’re not getting off at 7 (a.m.), it’s unreasonable. We’re not waiting until 7:30 (p.m.) to come on, it’s unreasonable. We have no way to eat. They set up an extension cord to plug in a coffee pot. The outlets have been taken away from them,” she said.
A smaller number of residents also pressed the issue of 5G networks and the city’s telecommunications ordinance.
Most of the speakers did not conform to their 2 minute time limits. After the public comment period, Graham adjusted the agenda to prioritize time sensitive items.
Councilors unanimously approved a contract to temporarily elevate Deputy City Manager Sabrina Cotta to the role of Acting City Manager from Oct. 27, 2023, to Jan. 31, 2024, at a cost of $9,934.93 in salary and benefits.
In the city manager’s report, Cotta stated the City Council would discuss the process for finding a permanent city manager during the Nov. 20 business meeting.
The City Council unanimously approved a contract for the nonprofit organization Options for Housing and Rental Assistance to operate the city’s severe weather shelter at a cost of no more than $100,000 from Nov. 10, 2023, to April 1, 2024.
A project to create a homeless master plan was also unanimously approved. The city’s Housing and Human Services Advisory Committee will examine the scope of homelessness in Ashland, create a map of organizations providing resources in Jackson County and determine gaps in available resources, according to meeting materials.
Council also approved the elimination of parking and creation of a protected bike lane on portions of North Mountain Avenue. At the suggestion of Councilor Bob Kaplan, the bike lane project was amended to include “bike boxes” — painted sections of street to protect cyclists at intersections, where crashes are statistically likely to occur. The bike lanes will be protected through an increase in size, paint, and plastic “candle” type barriers, explained Public Works Director Scott Fleury.
The barriers will be spaced apart and can be driven over to allow greater street width in the event of an evacuation and allow emergency vehicle access, Fleury said. Council voted 6-0 to approve the project.
Council business relegated to future meetings included a potential curfew for Ashland’s city parks, allowing controlled sale and service of alcohol in parks, a contract for nonprofit Lomakatsi to begin work in the Ashland watershed, and a contract for Calix to provide new equipment for Ashland Fiber Network.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com.