Council inclined to let voters choose where food and beverage tax funds go

The Ashland City Council at its July 5 business meeting as seen in an RVTV video.
July 6, 2022

Draft measure to come back for review; separate vote on parks management approved for November ballot

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news 

Some weighty decisions await Ashland voters this fall regarding who’s the boss of city parks employees and, probably, on where money raised by the city’s food and beverage tax is spent.

The majority of Ashland City Council at its meeting Tuesday agreed to let voters decide this November whether to let City Manager Joe Lessard oversee all city employees or keep it the same. Councilors voted 5-1, Councilor Stefani Seffinger dissenting, to have the public decide whether to adjust city manager oversight.

Lessard recommended the council put the city charter amendment on the November ballot to clarify the oversight of employees of the city of Ashland, including Parks & Recreation employees. The amendment, if approved by voters, would essentially place the Parks and Recreation director under the oversight of Lessard, in addition to clarifying the city manager’s oversight of all city departments.

Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard speaks at the July 5 council business meeting as seen in an RVTV video.

Councilors, by a 4-2 margin, also voted to direct city staff to bring back language for a dual referendum to let voters decide whether a portion or all of the city’s 5% food and beverage tax should go to Parks. If only a portion goes to Parks, voters would also be asked to broaden its use to include other general fund uses like police and fire. Councilors will take a look at proposed language at their next regular meeting on July 19.

City staff are tasked with clarifying language that would offer voters the choice between what’s proposed in a citizen’s initiative — to put 98% of the food and beverage tax toward parks — or if they’d prefer going with Lessard’s suggestion to allocate at least 25% to Parks and allow use of another 73% for other general fund uses (with the final 2% reserved for administrative overhead).

“I think it’s dangerous to not allow that flexibility for the City Council,” Mayor Julie Akins said, regarding broadening use for tax proceeds for the general fund.

Lessard emphasized he’s not recommending the food and beverage tax be a long-term revenue source for operations and maintenance for the city, unless the city wishes to do this. 

He said that the food and beverage tax is a limited funding source, despite both proposals calling for an extension of the tax to 2040.

Lessard said city managers and financial experts don’t generally recommend limited funding sources such as the food and beverage tax be used for anything but one-time expenses, “so that you don’t become addicted in your operational budget to using those one-time revenues, and then if they should evaporate on you or the voters should change their mind, then you’re not left with a hole in your operational budget.”

Lessard said as long as the tax is targeted at Parks, it cannot provide indirect support to the General Fund.

“If you want it to benefit Parks & Rec, you would not limit (the tax) it to Parks and Rec,” Lessard said.

Lessard said on Tuesday that the City Council had the choice of making the decision for voters easier and simplifying the situation.

“The council … They can determine that instead of it being an initiative, that the council may send a referendum and you agree to refer it to the voters as a ballot initiative,” Lessard said.

“What complicates this is that you have two potential items so the council could either allow for an initiative to go forward … or you could refer it as well as referring the other item to the voters, as contradictory or alternative items to be voted on and placed on the ballot as one or the other, but not both,” Lessard added.

More than 20 states don’t allow citizens to put an initiative on their own ballot, Councilor Paula Hyatt said. Since Oregon does allow this, she added, she doesn’t want to stand in the way of citizens’ right to petition their government.

“At a time where I see rights being eroded, I think it’s more important than ever that we champion the rights of our citizens,” Hyatt said. “How do we help educate the citizens on both sides?” she posed the question. “Let the community make their vote, make their determination.”

Ashland City Councilor Stephen Jensen speaks at the July 5 council business meeting as seen in an RVTV video.

Councilor Steven Jensen asked that city staff come back to council with “clear and sound path forward” that would allow voters to choose between the city manager’s suggestion and the citizen’s initiative.

“We make it harder when we require an item to gain 3,000 signatures when there is sentiment on this council to do (a) dual referendum,” Jensen said. “It allows the citizens group to spend their time between now and the election advocating for what they want to advocate for instead of grinding through, gathering signatures.”

Councilor Gina DuQuenne said she appreciated what everyone brought to the discussion, but said her perspective is that if the council is to respect the rights of the voters, citizens should be allowed to sign the petition to place an initiative on the ballot.

“If we allow the people to get the signatures, they are using their voice,” DuQuenne said. “This is what they want, and I stand by that.”

Ashland City Councilor Gina DuQuenne speaks at the July 5 council business meeting as seen in an RVTV video.

“If they don’t get it, apparently it’s not wanted,” DuQuenne said.

A group of residents known as “Friends of Ashland Parks & Open Spaces,” which includes petitioner Mike Gardiner, a former Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioner, is organizing a citizen’s initiative drive.

Councilor Shaun Moran asked if the city could have an individual from the initiative come speak to the council about their efforts.

He also shared support for the group getting 3,000 necessary signatures needed to place the initiative on the ballot.

When it came to the proposed amendment to change the city charter, Lessard said under the oversight change, the city manager would be accountable to make sure that the parks director is meeting the expectations of both City Council and the Ashland Parks RC, which includes hiring and firing a director.

Ashland City Councilor Shaun Moran speaks at the July 5 council business meeting as seen in an RVTV video.

“There would be a realignment,” Lessard said.

The amendment stems from Lessard asking the City Attorney for clarification of his role, in regards to Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission, due to what he called a “lack of clarity” in the city charter. It also aims at easing “confusion” for employees about who works for who, according to Lessard.

Lessard said under a proposed change in oversight, the APRC Director, a position currently held by Michael Black, would serve under the direction of Lessard, instead of the Parks Commission.

Hyatt emphasized the city is not trying to single out Parks, but to look at the city as a whole

“We incur duel costs everytime we need legal representation,” Hyatt said. “We need one set for Parks, we need one set for the City Council and we’re consistently bumping up against this and it’s having real impact on the insurance costs to this entire organization. I don’t like that it comes down to the insurance bill, but it does, and with that, we are seeing our insurer look at us as high risk, and that high risk is something that this body, it’s our duty to address.”

APRC Chair Rick Landt issued a statement after the meeting opposing the decision to send an amendment to the voters about the city manager’s oversight of city employees.

“For over 100 years Ashland’s City Councils and Park Commissioners have managed to work together consistent with the City Charter,” Landt said in an email following the vote. “Now a newbie City Manager, Joe Lessard, and relatively new City Councilors think they need to change the Charter because this year insurance rates increased. I believe that is an overreaction and if enacted would be detrimental to Ashland’s well-run parks and recreation system and to the community.”

The city manager said department heads all have a “great deal of latitude” on how they manage their departments, and that that wouldn’t change under this amendment to the charter.

“It’s not possible for the city manager to … make every decision and be involved in the minutiae of every department,” he said. “I expect the director of Parks would continue to operate very much like they do now in terms of their level of discretion.”

Parks & Recreation Commission Director Michael Black on Wednesday, in response to a request for comment from Ashland.news, said he believes the position would basically be new under the potential change.

“It’s just a very weird position to be in that the impact of this would basically change my position so that I no longer reported to the Parks Commission, which is the people that I have a contract with, and the people who hired me,” Black told Ashland.news. “I honestly don’t know if I would be working in that position.”

Councilor Stefani Seffinger, who previously served on the Parks & Recreation Commission, said during the meeting she understands the importance, from an insurance perspective, to have all employees come under the city manager. Seffinger expressed concerns early in the discussion that Parks would be less involved in making decisions for Parks.

“I just am not sure if really then what we’re doing is making it a department,” Seffinger said. 

Seffinger shared concerns with Lessard about whether the amendment would change how the Parks would allocate their budget.

“At this point, I don’t foresee a difficulty,” Lessard said. “I assume we’ll continue to work with the Parks Commission. They have control and management of Park funds once they’re appropriated and so, we will be appropriating those funds through the normal process and they will have policy control over Parks funds.”

Hyatt called on fellow councilors to do their fiduciary duty in voting to put the amendment on the ballot.

“The community should be able to choose,” Hyatt said. “If they want to pay the (higher insurance) premium associated with this dual track, or, if they want to change the structure.”

Graham shared Hyatt’s sentiments. 

With the change from a city administrator to a city manager form of governance, Graham said the community has been collectively thinking about shifts in city governance.         

Graham hopes that APRC continues to achieve its goals through this change, if implemented by voters, and that it is done “with the understanding that what we’re trying to do is mitigate risk.”

Interim attorney, ‘beer wagon’

In other council business, the council appointed Assistant City Attorney Doug McGeary as interim City Attorney until the city can hire for the position on a permanent basis.

Councilmembers also found common ground moving the pedicab forward, a service otherwise known as the “beer bike,” approving the second reading of the ordinance.

“If you could just bring the beer and wine in now, that would be great,” Councilor Moran said jokingly.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

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

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