Mayor to send letter on her own behalf after extended sharing of passionate views
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
A multitude of Ashland residents attended the Ashland City Council meeting Tuesday to speak their mind in response to a letter titled “Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza.”
The draft letter was on the consent agenda and could have been voted on without discussion. But in response to the volume of residents signed up to speak to it, Mayor Tonya Graham removed it from the consent agenda and opened the meeting to a lengthy and at times contentious public discussion regarding the nature of the war and the role of local government.
“Since the beginning of the war between Hamas and Israel it has been my intention not to speak directly to this conflict in this chamber. Our role as a council is to focus on municipal government and international situations are typically far removed from the everyday life of our community,” Graham said.
Graham stated she wrote the letter because the international conflict has become a source of everyday suffering for local residents. Some have loved ones who have been taken hostage or are missing. Others have come before council insisting on support for a ceasefire in preceding weeks. Council could volunteer to include its support for the letter, but Graham said absent that she would send the letter from her office as mayor alone.
“For my part, if I’m going to do something that members of my community think is a mistake, it will not be the mistake of remaining silent as innocent people, including children, are dying or being held hostage,” she said.
Of the residents who offered consistently impassioned testimony, there was no consensus of opinion.
Many considered Graham’s letter to be tantamount to a dismissal of Israel’s right to defend itself and naïve about the threat posed by Hamas. Others said it did not go far enough in acknowledging humanitarian suffering and condemning killing of Gazan civilians. On both sides, residents expressed concern over the numbers used to record casualties and the way hostages and casualties were described.
Those speaking in support of the state of Israel believed Graham had used data supplied by Hamas and stated it is a terrorist organization determined to destroy Israel. Those speaking in support of a cease fire and in defense of residents of Gaza described reports of starvation and violence.
Some residents offered strong opposition or support to the act of such a letter being issued officially by Ashland elected officials.
Emily Simon, Chair of the city’s Social Equity and Racial Justice Committee, stated she was speaking as a private citizen, and elected officials should do the same for a conflict of this nature.
“The word ‘mayor’ means something. … It has an extra kick to it when somebody reads it. … If you listen to the rhetoric that was used here today, they are taking words that are very very different from your letter and making it sound like your letter,” Simon said.
Ashland resident Allan Weisbard urged council and the mayor not to send the letter.
“I wanted to say out loud and really directly, ‘Not in my name.’ I do not want you sending the letter on city stationary. … I feel that many people that have spoken feel that they’re speaking to the U.S Senate. You’re not the U.S Senate. You are the Ashland City Council, we are town people, this is not in our purview,” he said.
Ashland resident Tony Foster stressed his view that the situation in Gaza is a genocide and said he would not vote for any politician running for office with the support of pro-Israel groups, and urged the signing and sending of the letter.
“I thank you for the letter and to urge all of the council members to sign their names to it. But I am appalled by what I have heard from my community,” he said.
“It is a sacred duty to stand up for human life in this moment even though it is very complicated and laden with historic trauma on many many levels,” said Ashland resident Erin Moline.
After the conclusion of public comment, Graham affirmed her and the city’s support for the Jewish community and opposition to any form of antisemitism. She also stated she would amend the letter to emphasize the desperation of the situation in Gaza and urge peace and release of hostages. She stated she believed it was important for the office of mayor to send the letter.
When Graham asked if the letter should be sent from council and the mayor, none of the four councilors in attendance spoke. Councilors Dylan Bloom and Jeff Dahle were absent from the meeting. In this silence, some attendees began singing loudly in apparent protest.
Police Chief Tighe O’Meara, acting in his capacity as sergeant-at-arms, informed those singing they would be arrested if they did not leave silently, at which point silence returned to council chambers.
Three of the four councilors then individually voiced support for Graham and her letter, but left the letter to be issued solely from the mayor’s office. Councilor Gina DuQuenne did not speak in support of the letter.
In other council business Tuesday, council voted to approve a contract with nonprofit Freshwater Trust for a “phase II Thermal Benefits analysis” study to ensure the city’s wastewater treatment plant remains in compliance with the Department of Environmental Quality and maintains its Wastewater Treatment Plant National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit. DuQuenne was the only councilor to vote in opposition.
DuQuenne left the meeting early, leaving Graham to refer to Ashland City Charter section 8 — by becoming a voting member of the body, council could continue business and maintain quorum with only three councilors in attendance.
Councilors voted unanimously to approve a waiver of $9,617.24 in system development fees for two affordable housing units being constructed by Habitat for Humanity in the Beach Creek Subdivision.
Council unanimously approved ballot language for the May special election to ask voters if they would approve a change for the city recorder from an elected official to a hired position.
Council also expressed support for and discussed a council retreat to be held on an undetermined date at a yet-to-be determined location in March. The annual retreat is an opportunity for training for councilors and, Councilor Eric Hansen noted, a rare and valuable time for councilors to collaborate together. Public meeting laws regarding a quorum of elected officials preclude a quorum of councilors (four, for Ashland) from meeting outside publicly noticed meetings.
The retreat will be publicly noticed and open to public attendance.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feb. 8: Changed to reflect that Councilor Gina DuQuenne did not speak in support of the letter. The amended version of Mayor Tonya Graham’s letter she sent the day after the meeting has also been attached to the story.
Feb. 12: Updated to clarify that it’s only against public meeting laws for a quorum of councilors to meet without public notice; up to three councilors, in Ashland’s case, can meet without public notice.