ashland.news
July 24, 2024

Council Corner: City Government of, by and for the people

Echo Fields guides discussion at the first meeting of the Homeless Services Master Plan Subcommittee on Tuesday, Jan. 9 — and, City Council member Bob Kaplan says, a "Great pic of the back of my head." Ashland.news photo by Morgan Rothborne
February 29, 2024

Volunteers discuss issues, shape city policy recommendations at advisory committee meetings

By Bob Kaplan

When we talk about the work of our city councilors, most of us probably think about what takes place in the business meetings and study sessions held in council chambers. But there’s a whole lot more to the job. For one thing, we get lots of email! I try to respond promptly (except to boilerplate email that’s all the same) and often suggest getting together over coffee or tea to continue the conversation. 

Bob Kaplan

Each councilor also serves as liaison to at least four other groups — such as Ashland’s advisory committees, regional entities, or community organizations. Here’s the full list of assignments for 2024: tinyurl.com/liaison-assignments. It makes for a busy schedule!

Advisory committees are an opportunity for Ashland residents to pitch in on important issues facing our community. I’m frequently awed by the knowledge and commitment of Ashlanders. Each committee is supported by a staff liaison and has a work program that’s defined with the council. Most convene monthly in meetings that are open to the public in compliance with Oregon law; most are also viewable online via Zoom. You can find who’s meeting when and where and what they’re talking about by checking the city calendar or signing up for alerts: ashland.or.us/calendar.asp

I’m fortunate to serve as liaison to groups working on issues that I’m passionate about: climate change and housing. I’ve worked on issues of poverty, environment, and climate change throughout my career, albeit in Latin America. (The differences aren’t as great as you might imagine.) Housing, environment, and climate change are increasingly interconnected: they’re about livability, equity, and how we foster a community that works for everyone. And they require taking a long view while working hard to get stuff done now.

Climate

I serve with Councilor Jeff Dahle as liaison to the Climate and Environmental Policy Advisory Committee (affectionately known as CEPAC). This is the committee focused on implementing Ashland’s Climate & Energy Action Plan. When the council approved the CEAP in 2017 and embedded it in our municipal code, Ashland committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and becoming more resilient to the changing climate. Using a 2015 greenhouse gas inventory as a baseline, the city mandated carbon neutrality in its operations by 2030, and to slash fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. The CEAP also set a target of reducing community greenhouse gas emissions by 8% per year, on average — which depends on all of us. The CEAP defines priority actions for the city and community to achieve these goals and targets. CEPAC works with staff to track implementation and recommend specific policies and programs to the council.

Last spring, the youth-led Rogue Climate Action Team came to the council asking for a ban on methane (natural gas) in new residential construction. The council asked CEPAC to explore the issue and gather public input. This has been a major undertaking for the committee and city staff, involving consultation with outside experts, outreach to community stakeholders, and two open sessions for public comment last fall. I look forward to council discussion of their analysis and recommendations soon.

Housing

I also serve on the Housing and Human Services Advisory Committee (you got it, HHSAC) with Councilor Dylan Bloom. HHSAC advises the council on a range of policy and funding issues related to housing and community health and well-being. The city receives annual funding from the federal community development block grant (yep, CDBG!) and also budgets resources for our housing trust fund and social service grant program. The committee has developed a robust methodology to evaluate applications for these funds, which helps the council allocate them wisely.

Homelessness is a significant concern in Ashland, as it is across our state and throughout the United States. It has therefore been a frequent topic of discussion on the council as we try to identify how best to approach this challenging and heart-breaking problem that’s gotten worse over the last few decades. Mayor Tonya Graham wrote more fully about it last week and mentioned that the council asked HHSAC to draft a homelessness services master plan (by June) to identify service gaps and guide the city’s investment — a big assignment. HHSAC set up a sub-committee for the task, enlisting additional community members with a range of relevant expertise and experience. They meet twice a month; all meetings are open to the public. Councilor Bloom and I also serve as council liaisons to the sub-committee.

Community involvement

A council liaison doesn’t have a vote in the advisory committees. Our role is to assist our committees and facilitate communication with the council. There is a time at the end of each council meeting for “other business” when we can update the public and our fellow councilors on our assigned committees or request council guidance on a particular point. Our goal is always for the council and committees to work seamlessly together to serve our community. When that works well, it’s very rewarding for all involved, and we see the results around town.

Being part of a city advisory committee is a great way to get involved with local government on issues you really care about and want to help. The best first step is to attend a committee’s meetings. I attended and then served on the climate committee for almost three years before running for city council. The mayor generally appoints a third of the members of each committee each April to a three year term, though she also fills vacancies at other times of the year as they open up. So mark your calendar, attend some of the meetings, and jump in!  

Email Ashland City Council Bob Kaplan at bob@council.ashland.or.us. Email letters to the editor and viewpoint submissions to news@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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