Residents packed Historic Ashland Armory on Monday; city to tabulate feedback on which issues mean the most
By Morgan Rothborne for Ashland.news
As the sun set on Monday, Jan. 30, the Ashland Historic Armory felt magnetized. Every pedestrian in the surrounding streets seemed to walk straight toward it. A line quickly grew from the front door, then curled around the building. But the attraction of the evening was no concert or party, but rather a town hall meeting hosted by the Ashland City Council.
“Tonight, you get to vote. We want to know what you think,” City Manager Joe Lessard said from a microphone on stage.
Normally, Councilor Tonya Graham explained from the podium, city councilors and staff can feel inaccessible. Speaking at council meetings means waiting, sometimes hours, to come to before a microphone removed from the half-circle dais of councilors, mayor and city manager. As Ashland emerges from the pandemic, she said, it’s becoming possible and vital to come together again and talk as a community.
“Tonight is all about you. The city officials who are here want to hear from you about what is important to you. What are your thoughts about the priorities we need to put focus on for the next couple of years?” Graham said.
Discussions on topics split among seven tables
A series of round tables encircled with chairs covered most of the floor inside the armory Monday night. The room swelled with voices. Chairs filled and many were left standing as Graham led the swelling group through a series of formalities familiar to council meetings — the Pledge of Allegiance, land acknowledgement, and roll call.
But once the bones of meeting requirements were over, the armory took on the atmosphere of a party — conversations layered over each other, people moved from one table to another and gathered along the sides of the room in private conversation.
Three tables were left, open but the rest were each devoted to one of the seven topics council has chosen for the upcoming biennium: public safety services, infrastructure issues and concerns, planning and growth, social initiatives or services, community investment, quality of life, and economic opportunity and vitality.
City councilors and staff led conversations at each table. Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Rick Landt filled the vacancy left by recently resigned City Councilor Shaun Moran. Easels holding enormous paper pads stood near every table, where staff wrote down topics and ideas rising from the conversation.
At the economic opportunities table, recently elected Councilor Eric Hansen warned a slightly shy group that at the first sign of a raised hand, he would ask them what they thought.
Sitting around the table were residents largely split between their college years and their golden years, but the ideas circled around a theme — more public celebrations.
Closing down the Plaza to cars so people could walk freely, more First Friday-like events, more concerts in the park, and street markets and fairs were all written on the pad.
“I want a Renaissance fair,” Deputy City Manager Sabrina Cotta said.
Every 15 minutes, Lessard would leave his space at the table and climb to the podium to remind everyone to rotate between tables and give those standing a chance to sit down and join the conversation. Many stood behind those seated, listened for a time and then wandered to a new table.
At the social initiatives table, Councilor Gina DuQuenne asked residents how they could envision coming together for more conversation surrounding social equity and racial justice. Southern Oregon University students Sienna Bauer and Madi Ross responded that there are many at the university ready and hopeful to make those kinds of connections.
As they moved to the next table, Bauer explained their attendance started as a homework assignment from the honors college to explore complex problems.
“One of the things we’ve been noticing, every problem here connects to every other table,” Bauer said.
Both women are majoring in environmental science and policy, and were naturally drawn to discussions around the city’s climate action policy. But, she said, they were also interested in emergency preparations for wildfires and the city’s housing and homeless problem.
“I grew up right outside of Portland. Moving to a smaller city has been a very fulfilling experience for me. I would love to live in Ashland, but I think about the affordability and it’s way beyond me,” Ross said.
“It’s really interesting hearing what everyone else thinks Ashland is doing or could be doing, it makes you think,” she said.
Along one wall in the Armory, seven mammoth posters were headlined with the topics of the evening with lists of sub-topics beneath. Every attendee received a sheet of 12 stickers. Throughout the night, people roamed around the posters, pushing their stickers onto the sub-topics they felt were the highest importance.
Economic Opportunity’s sub-topic of choice appeared to be to diversify the economy. For Quality of Life, open space and parks improvements was covered with a sea of stickers. For Community Investment, affordable workforce housing was filled in almost completely.
City residents talk with city leaders
The severe weather shelter and creating racial equity and social justice appeared to be tied in the Social Initiatives category. Planning and Growth did not attract as many stickers, save for those dedicated to limiting 5G cell phone towers. For Infrastructure, street maintenance and repair ranked high. For Public Safety, wildfire risk reduction commanded the most attention.
James LaVally appreciated the opportunity to sit across the table from the city’s fire chief, call him by his first name and ask him about the evacuation plan for the city.
“I didn’t expect to be sitting at the public safety table, but I’m glad I did. My wife and I, we live 150 feet from Almeda Street. The fire started about a quarter mile from our house. Having some knowledge about the city’s plans about when there’s another fire — and there will be another fire — is useful to us and I like the answers that I got,” he said.
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara calmed residents who worried over the apparent increase in crime from posts on the Nextdoor social media site.
“Ashland is a safe place. There isn’t a street I wouldn’t let my sweet 80-something mother walk down,” he said.
As Lessard announced the end of the meeting but encouraged continuing any ongoing conversations, the group broke up and residents began to trickle home.
“I want you to know that I heard your concern,” O’Meara said, turning to a young man sitting next to him.
Two tables over, Public Works Director Scott Fleury held the rapt attention of a small group.
“It’s about looking at your system and assessing what is your risk, what is your resiliency, and how do you reduce your risk,” Fleury said in response to a smattering of questions about what happens if the city’s functions fail and the grid goes down.
Even as O’Meara, Fire Chief Ralph Sartain, and councilors helped stow tables and chairs and most residents were gone, Fleury remained seated, still answering questions.
According to a hand-out given to attendees, the results of the public comments and sticker voting are expected to be compiled for the upcoming citizen’s budget committee. City tallies showed 301 people signed in at the door, and expect a few more participated without signing in. The two-and-a-half hour gathering officially wrapped up at about 8 p.m., sometime after a number of attendees had already departed.
The public can comment on the seven topics on the city’s website at ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=18289 until Feb. 3. The results of the vote will be posted on the city’s website in March.
Email freelance writer Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.